Benefits of Having a Pet
To my dog, George, I am perfect, a god. He loves me unconditionally. George wants to be with me every minute of every day. And he is never embarrassed by me. In fact, he even loves my singing. Some days, I might love him more than my three teenagers. He has never rolled his eyes at me, lied about his grades, or made me lose sleep worrying that he might live in my basement when he’s 30. I know what having a dog means to me. But what are the benefits of having a pet for my teenagers?
Well, as it turns out, there are many. There are physical, social, and psychological benefits that come from having a pet. Research shows that simply petting a dog lowers blood pressure and cortisol (the stress hormone) levels while raising good mood hormones.
In fact, the benefits of pets can lead to a more loving household, says Dr. Aubrey Fine, child psychologist and author of Our Faithful Companions. “Pets give us love, joy, laughter, camaraderie. Teenagers brought up in a home with animals experience the empathy, devotion, and character formation that come from bringing an animal into the fabric of the family,” says Fine.
One family has seen this change first hand. “Our dogs instantly change my girls’ moods. Even at their grumpiest, the dogs just make everything better,” says Tina. Her daughter, Kate, agrees. “I feel happier coming home because I know the dogs will be so excited to see me.”
For teens (who may find it easier to hug a pet than a family member), Fine says a pet helps to “regulate the emotional temperature in the house, keep family members more emotionally engaged with each other, and teach teens—even those with emotional armor—how to give back love and affection to others.”
Teens often turn to their pets in times of stress and emotional distress. Dr. Kathy Adamle, assistant professor at Kent State University, founded Dogs on Campus, the first program in the country to bring certified therapy dogs to a college campus to help students cope with exam stress, homesickness, and grief that many experience.
“There is something about dogs,” Adamle says. “They let you put your hands in their fur, hold on to them and cry if you need to. I’ve seen crying kids hug my dogs, or lie on the floor with them without saying a word, then get up and say, “Okay, now I’m good.” Students leave written feedback of their sessions with the therapy dogs, and according to Adamle, “the most common thing they do is draw a great big heart.”
Liz Morrison, a volunteer with Dogs on Call, brings certified therapy dogs into dorms and libraries at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Students melt when they see the dogs coming, Morrison says.
“The connection and the love that these animals give is so powerful, so strong that I can see the look of stress and anxiety just disappear, and the kids leave with smiling, happy faces. Some of them will even tell me they miss their pets at home more than their parents.” Morrison tells of one student who wrote: “I know I did well on my philosophy exam because I was so much more relaxed after petting your dogs the night before. It really worked!”
The benefits of having a pet go beyond emotional. Pets can also get your teens away from those flickering blue screens and can encourage greater physical activity, too. John R. Sirard, Ph.D. and an assistant professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst, conducted a research study, which found that teens from dog-owning families “get about 15 more minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity than teens that don’t have any pets.”
So, will the ferret your teen wants magically turn him into a responsible young adult? Not necessarily. But Fine says, “A teen’s pet can be a tool in the toolbox that parents use to help your teen learn about responsibility, commitment, and hard work,” says Fine. And, he adds, “There is more to life, happiness, and companionship than an electronic game.”