In the world of child development and education, "empathy" is far more than a mere buzz word. It is a crucial element of emotional well-being, a trait that can make or break a child's ability to form solid, healthy bonds with other people. Basically, empathy is the ability to understand the feelings of another person. Some people are born with an ability to connect to what another is feeling while other people need to have this skill nurtured.
And here is where dogs come in. In the past few years, there have been studies linking having a dog in childhood to having a strong sense of empathy.
Humans and dogs have been companions for thousands of years, developing a relationship where food and protection were the transactions. However any of us know that the bonds go much deeper. Dogs do much more than snarl at strangers in exchange for a treat. They worry about us. They care about us. And we, in turn, care about them.
In a 2017 study by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health and the Scottish SPCA, they determined that with children, pets offered opportunities for children to develop strong emotional ties, much as they would with a human. Not only do they develop affectionate bonds with their pets, but children have shown stress at the pet's absence. This stress is not for their own safety, but out of concern for the pet! The self-centeredness of toddlers (perfectly normal, by the way) can wane a smidge while they worry about their puppers (or kitty or bird or froggy). *Read about the study here
The Washington Post also described a Kansas State study that shows that caring for a pet takes focus off of oneself and onto the animal. For children, they learn to develop nonverbal cues in determining moods. Watching a dog's ear positions flicker or a tail move slowly can teach a child how the dog is feeling or what the dog is sensing. Children can learn how a dog responds to them too. Crying or feeling stressed out will result in most dogs wanting to provide comfort, or at least checking in to see that the child is OK. Feeling angry or throwing a tantrum may frighten the dog. The child can learn that his or her emotions do not exist in a vacuum, and that others are effected by them. This can lead to some emotional regulation on the child's part.
Those of us lucky enough to have grown up with dogs will not find any of this surprising. My dogs were my best friends and never judged me for bad grades or sitting near the wrong person at lunchtime. Dogs can not just teach a crucial human trait, they can help guide us through difficult times of uncertainty. That ought to be reason enough to have a dog blessed childhood.