Study: Family Dogs Can Help Reduce Stress Levels In Children

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New research from the University of Florida has shown that family dogs are a great stress relief for children. Researcher Darlene Kertes and her team knew that many people believe there are great benefits to children having pet dogs, but they looked to prove it with a randomized controlled study that looked at how dogs help children when they are stressed.

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Saying that learning to deal with stress in a positive way has a lifelong impact on how children cope with stress when they are adults, and that pets may help them learn positive strategy, Kertes’s team recruited about 100 families with pet dogs. The research team analyzed the stress levels of the children in those families by having the kids speak publicly and do mental arithmetic–two tasks that have been shown to raise the stress hormone cortisol levels in children and adults. This was to simulate real-life stress in the children’s lives, and the researchers randomly chose children to experience the tasks with their dogs present, their parent present or no parent or dog present.

Kertes said that the children who had their dogs with them said they felt less stressed than the children who had their parent or noone present with them. The researchers also used saliva samples to check the cortisol levels of the children and that the cortisol levels also changed based on the interaction (or lack thereof) with the pet dog. Children who asked their dogs to come with them or pet them during the stressful event had lower cortisol levels than those who did not have the same engagement level with their dogs. Interestingly those children who had their dogs with them tended to have higher cortisol levels when the dogs just hovered around the children, or approached the children on their own.

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According to Kertes, middle childhood is when children’s social support figures go outside of the realm of their parents, but they are not emotionally or biologically yet developed enough to deal with some of the stress of childhood on their own. Giving the children stress relief strategies and ways to deal with stress in the seven-to-twelve-year range does have benefit that will lead to better lifelong emotional health and well-being.