Whether it's a friendly retriever that doesn't mind the pokes and prods of a toddler, a patient collie that allows a preschooler to "do" her hair, or an active mountain breed that's a grade-schooler's most loyal sidekick, a dog is often one of a child's first and favorite playmates.
What's the reason for the kid-canine attraction? For one thing, a dog may be a child's best confidant, says Sandra B. Barker, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and director of the Human-Animal Bond Program at Virginia Commonwealth University Health System in Richmond. "He won't repeat what you tell him!" Having a pet also lets a child trade her role of "cared for" for that of caretaker -- by feeding, grooming, and walking the dog.
Besides being cuddly and fun to play with, a canine pal often teaches a child new tricks. "Children who are involved with their pets seem to show more empathy and may tend to have higher IQ scores," says Robert H. Poresky, Ph.D., associate professor of family studies and human services at Kansas State University in Manhattan, KS. The reason: Young kids are egocentric, and an animal provides feedback that shows another point of view.
A dog can also help smooth a child's transitions through childhood, adds Dr. Barker. "As young children explore their environment, a pet acts as a bridge between the familiar home and the outside world, which may lessen anxiety about new situations."
Although experts caution that you should never get a pet to solve a problem, sometimes adding a dog to the family can be part of a solution. For example, a dog may help a shy child come out of his shell. "A relationship with a dog can make a child feel secure, which increases the chances of his feeling comfortable interacting with others," says Dr. Poresky.
Dr. Barker agrees. "Pets act as a social lubricant," she says. "Research has shown that people interact more with others when they're out walking a dog than when they're strolling alone."
Further evidence of the benefits a dog brings: A study found that when animals were brought to a preschool, children who were inhibited at first became less shy the more they played with the animals. "Over time, the kids who held back initially were talking and petting the animals as much as the other kids were," says Dr. Barker.
That makes sense to Anthony Di Benedetto of Philadelphia, who credits his family's golden retriever, Bella, with contributing to his 2-year-old's early preschool success. "Alessandra's teachers say she interacts well with other kids," he says. "I think Ale is so loving because Bella has been a sweet and gentle companion."
Interacting with a pet can bring physical benefits too. Tamara Feaster of Berea, OH, points out how one of her family dogs, a Yorkshire terrier-Pomeranian mix, has helped Taylor, 15 months, practice her motor skills. "Taylor loves to throw a ball and have Valetta bring it back," says Feaster.
What's more, a dog of his own may encourage an overweight and sedentary child to get outdoors more, says Dr. Poresky. A dog may motivate a child to play Frisbee or take a walk.
Your child doesn't have to miss out on the benefits of a puppy playmate if she has allergies or asthma. Breeds like the bichon frise and standard poodle have hair, not fur, so they can be good choices. Plus, researchers at the University of Goteborg in Sweden found that kids exposed to pets during their first year of life were less likely to develop allergies or asthma than kids who weren't exposed to a pet.
Just remember: Besides the many benefits, owning a dog is a large responsibility for the whole family. The following are the best picks, according to experts.
Top Kid-Friendly Dogs for Families
You want a dog, but which one? As a general rule, the younger your child, the larger the dog should be. The reason: If a toddler falls on a big dog, it won't hurt the dog -- he'll just walk away. If a toddler falls on a small dog, the dog is likely to react aggressively to protect himself. Small breeds are best with kids over 6. Select a dog with a calm temperament, raised by a reputable breeder (go to www.akc.org for tips). And always supervise your child with any dog.