Here’s a science project your kids won’t balk at: playing with the dog.
A University of Massachusetts Amherst professor is looking for families with dogs and children to join a pilot study that will use Bluetooth-enabled devices to track the physical activity between children and their dogs. The research will also delve into the impacts of bonding with animals on kids’ mental health.
”We are very interested in how family dog ownership effects kids’ physical activity and psychosocial well-being,” said Katie Potter, director of the school’s Behavioral Medicine Lab and an assistant professor of kinesiology at the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. “There’s multiple pathways by which dogs can support health.”
“There’s a growing body of literature on how dogs effect kids’ health,” said Potter, who is leading the research. “But what we are trying to do with this study is really more precisely measure the physical activity that kids actually get with their dogs.”
To do that, researchers will have each family member, and the dogs, wear special “accelerometers” with Bluetooth technology to track the daily interaction between kids and their pets, as well as the intensity.
“The novelty of this project is really in the way that we are measuring physical activity,” she said. “The cool thing about these accelerometers — they’re called Actigraphs — is they have a Bluetooth feature, so not only can we look minute-by-minute to see that the kids are being active at the same time as the dog, but we can tell they are being active in close proximity.”
The devices, which will be worn on people’s wrists and on the dogs’ collars, will provide “all sorts of cool data” if all goes according to plan, she said.
“The percent of time spent with the dog that’s physically active, the percent of total physical activity that’s performed with the dog — that kind of stuff,” said Potter, 35, who is also conducting a pilot study on how pet ownership impacts cognitive and overall brain health in older adults.
The devices will be worn for about one week, and can be put on in the morning and taken off at night. Parents will also send in information to researchers about when the activity takes place.
“It’s a combination of the data coming in from the devices, which gives us lots of information about who is moving and if they are moving together, but we also like to have that reported information to compare and compliment the device data,” Potter said.
While researchers are interested in the physical interactions that occur between children and pets, they also want to look at how the total time spent with a dog influences mental health.
“We’re going to ask the kids about their relationship with their dog,” she said.
Potter, who has a background in exercise science and has studied ways to help people become more active, said at least some of her interest in this work, known as Human-Animal Interaction, or HAI, was inspired by her own dog, Chloe, who died last year.
“[She] became my muse,” she said, “and helped me walk every day, and meet my neighbors.”
Researchers from the lab have just started to look for families interested in taking part in the study. To be eligible, families need to have at least one dog that’s at least 1 year old, at least one child between the age of 3 and 10, and one parent or guardian willing to participate, according to details of the project. Families must make one visit to the UMass campus to be fitted with the monitors and measure their height and weight, but everything else will be done virtually.
Because Potter believes there could be high interest in the project (and because “people love dogs so much”), researchers are planning to do a follow-up study in the spring, which will be done through an online survey.
“We are largely doing this to complement the data we are getting in the pilot study,” she said in a follow-up e-mail, “because it will allow us to reach families across the state (and country), so we’ll get a much bigger data set.”
Potter stressed that the research is preliminary at this point. If the initial stage goes well, they hope it could lead to a larger-scale study.
“We know that physical activity is so important for physical development, academic achievement, and lots of different health and wellness outcomes in kids,” she said. “This line of research has great potential.”
And the dogs are sure to love the extra attention.