Body Language and Social Interaction

The Pet Effect

The Pet Effect is a term used to describe the positive mutual relationship between an owner and their companion. Many studies have been done supporting the fact that pets are beneficial to our physical and mental health. In our blogpost-Animal Assisted Intervention- What This Is and What We Practice this is explained more in-depth, however, it covers a broader range of people. This article is going to explore more specifically the effects of owning or working with an animal(s) on a child’s social development.

Communication is one of the most key skills to have in life. If you do not know how to effectively communicate, life becomes much more difficult. From an early age, children need to develop this skill in order to fulfill their basic needs- “I’m hungry, thirsty, tired, etc.” It is especially important for them to be able to communicate when they don’t feel well, are uncomfortable, or have any other range of emotions that can be difficult to navigate. This is where a childhood pet can be one of the best teachers. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute puts it best when saying, “Childhood pets can be perceived to be nonjudgmental, confidential and accepting sources of support. In addition, pets can be perceived as presenting their feelings authentically at the moment and being more forgiving than humans”.

This unique support system reaches children in a different way compared to family, friends, teachers, etc. One study found that the mere presence of a family pet during childhood can increase emotional expression and control in children, specifically looking at social competence, increased social interaction, improved social communication, and social play in children. Companion animals can help children learn to express and understand non-verbal communication and decipher intentions, which leads to improved emotional understanding and expression when interacting with other people. One of our own youth at The Underdog Project started off the programme with very little interest in the dogs. Over a few weeks, he began to develop into a strong trainer, becoming much more invested in the work. When one of the weekly sessions went over dog body language, he was shocked by some of the examples that showed a dog showing signs of fear. This recognition is exactly what we hope to see when we do our lessons because this realisation can be translated to other interactions. Similarly, another youth announced (when actually working with the dogs) that he could see from a dog’s body language that he looks scared. This student took what was learned in the classroom and applied it to a real-life situation, showing the awareness he has during social interactions. This emotional understanding is one of the most vital skills to have when it comes to social development.

If one struggles to understand oneself and others’ emotions, interactions can become misinterpreted and lead to unwanted scenarios. While having a pet at home may not be possible for everybody, these same effects can come from working with animals, having a classroom pet, etc. Studies have found that classroom pets lead to higher social integration, fewer aggressive children, and greater sensitivity towards the needs and moods of other people, making it just as beneficial to a child’s social development as a pet at home.
To learn more about the benefits of youth and dogs working together, continue following our journey through The Underdog Blog!