GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Past studies have found having pet dogs offer many benefits: they can boost an owner’s sex appeal, and reduce the risk of allergies and obesity in children. Now a new study finds that “man’s best friend” also offer a very therapeutic role for stressed children.
Looking to test the widely held belief that dogs provide kids with social support, researchers at the University of Florida discovered children’s stress levels were actually reduced more in the accompaniment of their pet dog than even when they had a socially supportive parent at their side.
The randomized controlled study recruited around 100 pet-owning families to participate in several stress experiments at the campus laboratory with their respective pups.
“Many people think pet dogs are great for kids but scientists aren’t sure if that’s true or how it happens,” says Darlene Kertes, an assistant professor in the department of psychology, in a university press release. “How we learn to deal with stress as children has lifelong consequences for how we cope with stress as adults.”
The children were tasked with completing a public speaking exercise and an arithmetic task, which past research shows are common stress-inducing activities (for children and adults alike). The stress hormone cortisol is raised as it is the biological indicator of stress levels in such situations. It was measured as an indicator of real-life stress pressures. The children experienced the stressor with their dog at their side for social support, then with their parent present and finally with no social support whatsoever.
The results found that children with pets present showed lower overall cortisol levels with or without parental social support present.
“Our research shows that having a pet dog present when a child is undergoing a stressful experience lowers how much children feel stressed out,” says Kertes. “Children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed compared to having a parent for social support or having no social support.”
The participating children’s cortisol levels were measured both before and after the stress experiments. The results found that the children, ages 7 to 12 years old, who underwent the speaking or arithmetic stress experiences with their pets present had varied levels of cortisol depending on the positivity of their interaction with their respective pets.
The children who experienced the most friendly interactions with their pets had lower cortisol levels.
“Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less,” says Kertes. “When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”
Adds Kertes: “Middle childhood is a time when children’s social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing. Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and well-being, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life.”
Kertes and her colleagues’ research for this study was published in the journal Social Development.