In a recently published study, Dr International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, A group of researchers examined the longitudinal effects of changes in dog ownership on children’s physical activity and movement behaviors using data from the Play Spaces and Environments for Children’s Physical Activity (PLAYCE) cohort study.
Despite the importance of physical activity to children’s health, many fail to meet activity guidelines. In places like Australia, dog ownership is associated with higher physical activity levels in children, as dog ownership encourages more walking and sports. Still, the effects of dog ownership on children’s screen time and sleep remain unclear and longitudinal research is lacking. Ethical constraints limit the feasibility of randomized trials, underscoring the value of naturalistic experiments or observational studies to explore this relationship. There is a critical need for further studies using improved methods to accurately assess the effects of dog ownership on various aspects of children’s movement behavior.
About the study
The current study, initiated in Perth, recruited children aged 2 to 5 years from early childhood education and care services. The study sought participants from various socio-economic backgrounds by collecting baseline data from 2015 to 2018. As these children transitioned to full-time school, they were followed until 2021, if they met eligibility criteria, resulting in a sample of 641. For wave 2 children aged 5 to 7 years, 600 children have complete data on dog ownership across both waves. This setup created a naturalistic experiment with four distinct groups based on changes in dog ownership, allowing comparisons of physical activity levels and other movement behaviors over time.
Children’s physical activity was rigorously measured using an Actigraph GT3X+ accelerometer, processed through a machine learning model to accurately classify activity intensity. In addition, parents reported screen time, sleep duration, and physical activity, providing a comprehensive view of children’s movement behaviors. The study considered various covariates such as parental education and family characteristics to adjust for potential confounders.
Analytical methods included linear mixed effects models to account for differences in movement behavior over time and by dog ownership status, adjusting for a range of variables and the context of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.
Results of the study
The PLAYCE cohort study detailed the characteristics and behavior of children across different dog ownership conditions. Almost half of the participants were girls, with a mean age of 3.2 years at study offset. Notably, socio-economic factors such as mother’s education level, employment status and living conditions vary significantly across dog ownership groups, affecting the context of the study.
Initial evaluation revealed no significant differences in movement behavior measured by the device between dog ownership groups. However, when looking at unstructured physical activity, children in the dog owner and dog loss groups engaged in more physical activity than their peers without dogs. Importantly, these differences were primarily due to dog-related activities. Screen time and sleep duration also varied, indicating subtle effects of dog ownership on children’s daily routines.
Changes in movement behavior were observed as children transitioned from preschool to full-time school, depending on whether they acquired or lost a dog during this period. For girls, gaining a dog positively affected light intensity activity, whereas losing a dog decreased both light intensity activity and total physical activity. Conversely, boys in the dog-owning group saw an increase in active play, highlighting the gender-specific effects of dog ownership on children’s physical activity.
Acquiring a dog also positively affects unstructured physical activity in both girls and boys, emphasizing the role of dog-facilitated activities in promoting physical engagement. These results suggest that changes in dog ownership status can significantly affect children’s movement behavior, with the loss of a dog particularly affecting physical activity levels in girls.
Screen time trends further illustrated these effects, with no significant changes observed among girls who acquired or lost a dog, but a distinct trajectory for girls in the dog owner group compared to non-dog owners. This variation underscores the complex relationship between dog ownership and screen time, possibly reflecting lifestyle or behavioral adaptations associated with having a pet.
Finally, this study highlighted significant changes in physical activity and screen time among children exposed to changes in dog ownership status. These findings point to the potential of dog ownership to positively influence children’s physical activity, with implications for public health strategies aimed at increasing physical participation in young populations.