Dogs can sync up their behavior with children, but they do it better with adults

CORVALLIS, Ore. — For many families, a dog can act like a friend, protector, and even another sibling for their children. While kids may love to be around their furry friends, are dogs really learning anything from these youngsters, or does mom and dad have to do all the training? A new study finds dogs actually can sync up their behavior and learn from children, just not as well as they do with adults.

Researchers from Oregon State University say it’s important to know how well dogs can learn from children because of their growing use in therapy and rehabilitation. Programs are already using canines as companions during exercises which help kids work on social development, physical activity, and anxiety or trauma management. The OSU team aimed to find out just how well the average family pup engages with their owner’s children.

“The great news is that this study suggests dogs are paying a lot of attention to the kids that they live with,” says Oregon State animal behaviorist Monique Udell, in a university release. “They are responsive to them and, in many cases, behaving in synchrony with them, indicators of positive affiliation and a foundation for building strong bonds.”

“One interesting thing we have observed is that dogs are matching their child’s behavior less frequently than what we have seen between dogs and adult caretakers, which suggests that while they may view children as social companions, there are also some differences that we need to understand better,” the lead study author adds.

Dogs are great at playing ‘follow the leader’

Study authors recruited 30 children between eight and 17 years-old to take part in the study alongside their family dog. Eighty-three percent of the children have a developmental disability.

Each child and their companion entered a large, empty room set up like an obstacle course for them. Colored lines on the floor marked the path each child was instructed to walk along with their dog. To see how well they follow along, each dog was also off their leash for the experiment.

Researchers recorded the pairs on video, looking for three key behavioral signs from the canines:

  • Synchrony – how much time the dog and child were moving or standing still at the same time
  • Proximity – how much time the dog and child were within one meter of each other
  • Orientation – how much time the dog was facing in the same direction as the child

The OSU team says dogs did better at following their young owners than they were expected to perform. Overall, the pups moved or stayed still along with the children over 60 percent of the time. They stayed in the same proximity to the kids just over 27 percent of the time and faced in the same direction a third of the time. Study authors say these numbers are better than what scientists would expect to occur just by random chance on the dog’s part.

Dogs still prefer to follow adults than children

(Credit: Oregon State University)

Although the results show dogs clearly respond to younger owners and can learn from them as well, the same tests with adults reveal dogs sync up better when following older humans.

Previous tests examining dog-adult relationships show canines have “active synchrony” with their owners nearly 82 percent of the time. Even in shelter pets, that number is still 49 percent. Dogs also stay within the same proximity of their adult owners nearly 73 percent of the time (39.7% among shelter dogs).

“We still have a lot to learn about the dog-child relationship” Udell says. “We’re hoping this research can inform the best ways to shape positive outcomes and mitigate risks by helping children interact with dogs in a manner that improves the relationship and ultimately the welfare of both individuals.”

Are there risks in pairing dogs with children?

Oregon State researchers plan to keep researching the quality of bonding that takes place between kids and canines. This includes looking at how well dogs fare when humans use them during therapy exercises and when children assume more responsibility over the animal’s daily care.

The team cautions, however, there are still risks in pairing young children with dogs. The study notes that dogs are more likely to bite a child than an adult handler.

“What we are finding is that kids are very capable of training dogs, and that dogs are paying attention to the kids and can learn from them,” Udell concludes. “Sometimes we don’t give children and dogs enough credit. Our research suggests that with some guidance we can provide important and positive learning experiences for our kids and our dogs starting at a much earlier age, something that can make a world of difference to the lives of both.”

The study appears in the journal Animal Cognition.