Project Summary: There are high levels of pet ownership in the United States (Melson, 2003; Walsh, 2009),
and the potential for companion animals to promote physical and mental health (Crossman, in press). Yet,
research on the impact of human-animal interaction (HAI) on physical and mental health is still in the early
stages (Griffin et al, 2011. This is especially true in the area of pets and child development, as pets are studied
less than therapy animals (Esposito et al, 2011). One barrier to progress is that there currently is no single
conceptual framework used to describe children's relationships with pets, making it difficult to integrate findings
from different studies. In addition, there are substantial methodological limitations to the research, in that
studies have typically relied on child or parent surveys that have not been validated against actual interactions
between children and their pets. Another issue is that almost all studies have examined pet relationships
without also considering children's human relationships, and thus do not address the potential unique influence
of pets, including their protective or mitigating influences on psychological health. Finally, studies have not
considered negative qualities of pet relationships. To address these limitations, the proposed study focuses on
six qualities of children's relationships with their pet dogs: Affection, emotional support from pet,
companionship, nurturance of pet, pet as substitute for people, and friction with pet. These qualities will be
assessed with multiple methods (self-report, observation, and daily diaries). Pet dogs are targeted given that
they may be especially likely to provide children with unconditional support (Walsh, 2009) and can engage in
responsive interactions that promote bonding (Jalongo, 2015), and we focus on children 9 to 12 years of age
given that family ownership of pets is high at this age (Esposito et al, 2011). The specific aims are:
1. To develop a conceptual framework and a conceptually guided set of measures (questionnaires,
observations, daily diaries) that can be used to describe children's interactions with a pet dog.
2. To examine convergence among the measures to evaluate their validity.
3. To further evaluate the pet measures by examining their associations with children's relationships with
parents and friends and with child adjustment (behavior problems, thriving, and positive affect). We more
specifically test: (a) is pet relationship quality related to relationships with parents and friends, (b) is it related to
adjustment, even after controlling for human relationships, and (c) can positive relationship with pet dogs buffer
children from effects of low quality relationships with parents or friends.
The study of children's relationships with parents and peers grew rapidly once new, well validated measures
emerged (e.g., of attachment, parental responsiveness, peer sociometrics, friendship quality). If the grant aims
are achieved, this study would provide a new set of theoretically informed measures that could stimulate
further research on the mental health consequences of pets.