Nobody has a stake on your heart like your childhood dog.

By Zoe Denenberg
January 30, 2020
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At all stages and seasons of an owner’s life, pets can fill vastly different roles; while companionship may be the underlying theme of living with a pet, sharing life with an animal can have a greater, more specific impact depending on your age and needs. For older owners, dogs can assuage loneliness and provide comfort at just the right time. As the “house dog” at Sunrise Senior Center in Chevy Chase, Journey—a 6-year-old dog rescued from euthanasia in the nick of time—greets visitors, snuggles with residents in need of company, and trots alongside the walking club.

Although owning a dog in your 20s may seem like too large a responsibility, it can bring unexpected rewards. At first, Clare Ubersax, a 23-year-old living in Birmingham, Alabama, was hesitant to adopt 4-year-old dog Ruby: "Part of me knows that adopting a dog only 6-months into working my first job and still without a 401k account was an irresponsible decision,” Ubersax laughs—but the impact Ruby has made on her health and happiness has proved invaluable. “With Rubes, everything is full of love, and it makes the hard stuff of my transition into adulthood like working long hours and paying bills feel a whole lot easier and lighter,” she writes.

Dogs are highly affectionate creatures—they develop deep attachments with their owners, often teaching us more about companionship and love than we ever could have expected. But dogs show a special attachment to children, famously going the extra mile to protect them at all costs. And now, research suggests that growing up with a dog can have a tangible, positive impact on children’s health and happiness.

According to a study conducted by the American Academy of Pediatrics, children living in homes with dogs (and cats!) are healthier on multiple accounts: “Children with early dog contact seem to have fewer respiratory infectious symptoms and diseases, especially ear infections, and needed a shorter course of antibiotics.” Coexisting with dogs seemed to give children stronger resistance to infections—and a similar result was found with household cats, too. “Cat ownership also showed a protective effect on infants, but not as strong as dogs.”

Similarly, research by the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Pediatrics found that, “Exposure to dogs in infancy—especially around the time of birth—can actually influence children’s immune development and reduce the likelihood of certain allergic diseases,” like eczema and asthma.

In addition to physical health benefits, early socialization with dogs can help children learn about care and compassion, according to Gabrielle Feldman for the Drake Center for Veterinary Care. In a study by the American Humane Association on pets in the classroom, teachers consistently observed the development of “sympathy, empathy, responsibility, compassion for living things, [and] loving caretaking” in children’s interactions with classroom pets.

In terms of happiness and mental health, companion animals are believed to improve owners’ emotional well-being and decrease the likelihood of stress and anxiety—even in children. “Having a pet dog in the home was associated with a decreased probability of childhood anxiety,” concludes a study by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

All of these findings warrant further investigation but build a promising case for the positive impacts a pet can make on even the youngest owners. If you grew up with a beloved childhood pet, chances are you already know this to be true. Maybe it’s time to pay it forward and take the kids on a trip to the shelter.