Definition of Behaviorally Healthy

Teaching a dog to walk on a leash and fetch can build a stronger, more positive relationship between children and dogs. Photo Credit Haley Romanko The concept of a behaviorally healthy relationship between children and dogs implies reciprocity such that the actions from both promote well-being (Bergman 2006).

Observable actions from the child and the dog are harmonious and characterized by mutual respect and affection. When a child learns to treasure a dog and the dog bonds with the child, this has the capacity to enhance the health and quality of life for both. “Healthy individuals live in harmony with themselves, others and their environments” and “there are interconnections among the physical, psychological, and social components of health” that influence the quality of life (QoL) (Friedmann et al. 2015, p. 73). A behaviorally healthy relationship is consistent with the concept of responsible companionship (Fox and Gee 2016).

From an animal welfare perspective, the dog’s rights are, at the very least, the “Five Freedoms” set forth by the United Kingdom’s Farm Animal Welfare Council [FAWC] (2009):

  • Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water a diet to maintain full health and vigor
  • Freedom from discomfort by providing associate degree acceptable setting, including shelter and a comfortable resting area
  • Freedom from pain, injury, or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
  • Freedom to precise (most) traditional behavior by providing  sufficient house, proper facilities, and company of the animal’s own kind.
  • Freedom from worry and distress by guaranteeing conditions and treatment that avoid mental suffering.

Ultimately, people have an obligation to provide all sentient creatures with “a life worth living” (FAWC 2009). Surely we can expect no less in the treatment of the family dog. In a behaviorally healthy relationship, the child considers (or is learning to consider) dogs’ requirements for food, water, exercise, rest, safety, grooming, and affection.

Ideally, such consideration would be extended, not only to the inner circle of family dogs, but also to interactions with other dogs in the community, such as the dogs that visit during animal-assisted activities, lost or homeless dogs, and the service dogs of people with disabilities.

On the other side of the equation, the dog is trained (or is learning) to control impulses that are distressing to the child, such as jumping up and knocking the child down, pulling on a leash, destroying property, and guarding resources. A bond between a child and a dog is founded on mutual trust, respect, and support. One 8-year-old girl described this dynamic between her and her two dogs:

Z. [a 2 year old Labrador retriever] is my best friend. She’s calm and she always kisses mein the night. One time we thought there was a bear in my room but she just went on my bed and slept with me half of the night until the morning came and then I called mommy and daddy.

Z. is scared of thunder, so sometimes I take care of her and help her.

Y [her other dog] is fun and she doesn’t even like the thunder but I still like protecting her… my puppies can look up into my eyes and I can understand that they’re probably reading my mind.

In this situation, both the child and the dog are cared for, loved, and respected—the very definition of social support (Serpell 2015). With this support system in place, children and their dogs feel more relaxed and their stress levels decrease (Serpell 2011).

In fact, studies show that when people just gaze at the dogs they care for and about, it increases oxytocin, the hormone that elevates positive mood (Nagasawa et al. 2008), the stress hormone. Interestingly, similar patterns of reductions in cortisol, the stress hormone, occur in dogs when they interact with bonded owners (Schoberl et al. 2012). Ideally, a dog really fits in a family (Garcia 2016), represents a source of happiness, contributes to a sense of well-being (Bao and Schreer 2016), and changes family dynamics in a positive way (Tovares 2010).

Raup (1999), a sociologist, characterized ways of treating animals during childhood and the consequences for adult life in three ways: treasuring, trashing, or terrorizing. If dogs are treasured, then the family makes an investment of time, energy, emotion, and finances into providing the conditions necessary to give it a good quality of life (Baker et al. 2016).

The inevitable inconveniences that dogs cause are accepted as part of the animal guardian’s role. Children’s answers to the question, “Is there  something you’ll be able to do to stay your dog(s) safe and healthy?
reflect this commitment to caring:

Play with her inside and don’t let her in the road and get bit by a snake. (6-year-old girl)

Make sure she has food and water and like make sure you keep watch on the dog and make sure he doesn’t run off and chase a car or get lost. We had to go up and find ‘em and she was at the Humane Society and we got ‘em back. (11-year-old girl)

We try not to keep the gate open cause that’s happened before and he’s gotten betweenthe fences one time and if you see just a random board patched somewhere that means he gotten through it and he might do it again and so if he gets out, it’s kind of my job to run after him in the streets. (11-year-old boy)

I try not to let him eat poop. And I try and make him not eat dead bugs and stuff. I try to keep him safe like if he ignores the invisible fence and runs into the road, I try and catch him and I try to stay calm so that he’ll come to me and I’ll pick him up and cradle him in my arms. (11 year old boy)

I just love him a lot he just a lot of times likes to eat tiny little critters, but what dogdoesn’t? We don’t run into them a lot. He also likes to chase deer. (12-year-old girl)

If, on the other hand, dogs are “trashed,” identification with dogs and recognition oftheir emotional states is absent. Dogs are treated in much the same way as a toy—to be tossed aside when it becomes inconvenient, replaced when the novelty wears off, or abandoned or surrendered if behavioral issues surface or health is compromised.

Children may not feel much connection to owned dogs or the dogs may be seen as belonging to one person rather than the entire family—such as hunting dogs owned by a parent. An 8-year-old girl, for example, thinks that the two big dogs who live outside are “dumb” and annoying: “Sometimes they bark at people and we kind of have to let them in because the dog is distracting us from doing something”; she much prefers a “cute” expensive, pampered little purebred Yorkshire terrier, owned by her neighbor.

If dogs are “terrorized”, they are an object of cruelty and the perpetrators of violence use bonds that other family members form with dogs to intimidate, hurt, and manipulate. The following incident that occurred at a shelter illustrates how dogs’ treatment in family can be a bellwether of family functioning:

A father marches into the animal shelter dragging a half grown puppy on a rope. Two young children about 4 and 6 years of age are with him, sobbing and pleading to be allowed to keep the dog and promising to take care of him. With that, the father announces, in a booming voice, “Now you’re going to learn your lesson. You said you were going to take care of him and you didn’t, so that’s it—he’s going back.

I told you this was going to happen.” Everyone at the shelter is visibly upset and heartbroken for the children but the shelter manager, who is stunned into speechlessness, obtains the father’s signature on an owner surrender form.

After he leaves, she says that the father’s adamant tone and angry gestures caused her to fear that the puppy would be in danger if left in the home and that she is very worried about the children’s welfare. The puppy that is returned to the shelter is not the confident, happy dog that the staff knew previously; his body language tells all.

The pup flinches when a human hand comes near, flattens to the ground, shakes with fear, and has to be picked up and carried. After the father leaves, he is put on the shelter’s “do not adopt to” list and a discussion ensues about reporting the incident to authorities.

Forcing a child to surrender an animal is a major developmental event (Melson 2001). Evidently, the most common outcome is a perpetuation of that indifference to dogs—the child becomes an adult who discards dogs at the first sign of difficulty.

In other cases, these heartbroken children mature into adults who are determined to right that deeply-felt wrong—sometimes, it is in a socially acceptable way such as becoming an animal rescuer and at other times it is in a disturbed way, such as becoming an animal hoarder.

In fact, the working model of who becomes an animal hoarder identifies neglectful, abusive, and inconsistent parenting during childhood and traumatic experience as common elements in the behavior (Hoarding of
Animals Research Consortium 2017; Nathanson and Patronek 2011).

We now turn to three themes that emerged from our interviews with children and surveys with their parents (Appendix A). First, that when dogs are acquired, it is most often “for the children”; second, that adults in the family dream of dogs and children “growing up together,” and third, that families hope a bond with a dog will “teach responsibility”.


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