Summary: According to researchers, children who spent time interacting with their dogs had lower cortisol levels.
Source: University of Florida.
Pet dogs provide valuable social support for kids when they’re stressed, according to a study by researchers from the University of Florida, who were among the first to document stress-buffering effects of pets for children.
Darlene Kertes and colleagues tested the commonly held belief that pet dogs provide social support for kids using a randomized controlled study — the gold standard in research.
“Many people think pet dogs are great for kids but scientists aren’t sure if that’s true or how it happens,” Kertes said. Kertes reasoned that one way this might occur is by helping children cope with stress. “How we learn to deal with stress as children has lifelong consequences for how we cope with stress as adults.”
For their study, recently published in the journal Social Development, the researchers recruited approximately 100 pet-owning families, who came to their university laboratory with their dogs. To tap children’s stress, the children completed a public speaking task and mental arithmetic task, which are known to evoke feelings of stress and raise the stress hormone cortisol, and simulates real-life stress in children’s lives. The children were randomly assigned to experience the stressor with their dog present for social support, with their parent present, or with no social support.
“Our research shows that having a pet dog present when a child is undergoing a stressful experience lowers how much children feel stressed out,” Kertes said . “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.”
Samples of saliva was also collected before and after the stressor to check children’s cortisol levels, a biological marker of the body’s stress response. Results showed that for kids who underwent the stressful experience with their pet dogs, children’s cortisol level varied depending on the nature of the interaction of children and their pets.
“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,” said Kertes, an assistant professor in the psychology department of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”
The children in the study were between 7 to 12 years old.
“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,” Kertes explained. “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.”
Source: Robin Lally – University of Florida
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Original Research: Abstract for “Effect of Pet Dogs on Children’s Perceived Stress and Cortisol Stress Response” by Darlene A. Kertes, Jingwen Liu, Nathan J. Hall, Natalie A. Hadad, Clive D. L. Wynne and Samarth S. Bhatt in Social Development. Published online May 2017 doi:10.1111/sode.12203
Effect of Pet Dogs on Children’s Perceived Stress and Cortisol Stress Response
The present study tested whether pet dogs have stress-buffering effects for children during a validated laboratory-based protocol, the Trier Social Stress Test for Children (TSST-C). Participants were 101 children aged 7–12 years with their primary caregivers and pet dogs. Children were randomly assigned in the TSST-C to a pet present condition or one of two comparison conditions: parent present or no support figure present. Baseline, response, and recovery indices of perceived stress and cortisol levels were computed based on children’s self-reported feelings of stress and salivary cortisol. Results indicated that in the alone (no social support) condition, children showed the expected rise for both perceived stress and cortisol response to stress. Pet dog presence significantly buffered the perceived stress response in comparison to children in the alone and parent present conditions. No main condition effect was observed for cortisol; however, for children experiencing the stressor with their pet present, lower cortisol response to stress was associated with more child-initiated petting and less dog proximity-seeking behavior. The results support the notion that pet dogs can provide socio-emotional benefits for children via stress buffering.
“Effect of Pet Dogs on Children’s Perceived Stress and Cortisol Stress Response” by Darlene A. Kertes, Jingwen Liu, Nathan J. Hall, Natalie A. Hadad, Clive D. L. Wynne and Samarth S. Bhatt in Social Development. Published online May 2017 doi:10.1111/sode.12203