Does a dog in the family help babies learn?

Does a dog in the family help babies learn? UBC researchers want your help to answer this question!

We are happy to give the University of British Columbia a hand in finding partners for their study on whether dogs help babies learn. We hope you enjoy reading about this study from Dr.’s Werker and Sugden.
It’s about dogs and babies, who can resist that!

Dogs’ co-evolution with humans over the past 10,000 years has made them excellent family members today. The benefit of having a canine family member extends across the lifespan: from reducing stress in adults to improving social-communicative ability in children. There is less research on how dogs benefit infants. We hypothesize that infants, like children and adults, will benefit from being born into a family with a dog. Our initiative is designed to ask: do dogs benefit infants? We are looking for a partner organization with whom to collaborate on a project designed to evaluate whether having a dog as part of the family improves learning outcomes for young infants.

Although there are a multitude of potential ways having a canine sibling may benefit infants, we anticipate that their and their family’s interaction with their dog would have the largest effect on infants’ social and communicative development. To measure this, we will consider both brain and behavioral development from birth to 6 months of age. We will use Near Infra-Red Spectroscopy (NIRS) to measure infants’ neural response to dog barks and human speech; this indicator will tell us whether specific brain pathways that support social and communicative understanding are responding to both human and canine vocal communication. To measure infants’ social and communicative development, we will test how they use communicative signals common to both human-human and human-dog interactions: eye gaze and pointing.

We predict infants to be born tuned to both human speech and dog barks, but only babies from families with dogs to show continued activation of social-communicative brain response to both speech and barks. Moreover, we predict infants from families with dogs to show earlier understanding of eye-gaze and pointing and that this earlier understanding of social-communicative intent to be related to their neural response to canine communicative signals (i.e., dog barks). Such findings would support the hypothesis that our co-evolution permits greater experience-driven neural plasticity for potential communicative signals present in the early environment, which in turn supports more advanced social-communicative understanding. Additionally, it suggests that the benefits of growing up with a canine “sibling”manifest from birth.

Dr. Janet Werker, Director of the University of British Columbia Infant Studies Centre, University Killiam Professor, Canada Research Chair in Psychology, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and Dr. Nicole Sugden will be conducting the work. We are actively looking for an organization interested in partnering with us for this research project and to help us share the outcome with Canadian families. We believe that organizations actively involved in the pet community would provide an invaluable perspective for the project. We would like a partnership that is mutually beneficial, including the aims of the partnership organization in the project.

To further discuss the project or if your organization may be interested in partnering with Dr. Werker’s UBC Infant Studies Centre for this project, please contact Nicole Sugden at nsugden@mail.ubc.ca .

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