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Dogs Can Help Reduce Stress in Children

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Experts say spending time with dogs can help lower stress levels in children. Daniela Jovanovska-Hristovska/Getty Images
  • In a new study, researchers say interactions with dogs help reduce stress hormone levels in children.
  • Experts say dog ​​ownership can also help teach children about responsibility and social interaction.
  • They note, however, that parents should consider the financial and time commitments to having a dog.

Spending time with dogs can help reduce stress in children.

That’s according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study examined stress levels in children in the United Kingdom before and after spending 20 minutes with a trained dog and professional handler. The sessions were twice a week for four weeks.

The results were compared with a control group of children who didn’t spend time with dogs and a group who practiced meditation instead.

Researchers said the children who spent time with dogs showed significantly lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels after their interactions than either the control or meditation group. This was the case in both mainstream and special educational needs schools.

The researchers said dog interventions can successfully reduce stress levels in schoolchildren, but they also point out that additional research is needed to determine the optimal amount of time spent with dogs to reduce stress.

The results of the new study match the findings of previous research.

A 2018 literature review reported that dogs provide stress relief and social support in terms of increasing social interaction, easing loneliness and depression, and possibly increasing exercise activity.

Andrea Dorn, MSW, a clinical social worker, author of When Someone Dies: A Children’s Mindful How-To Guide on Grief and Lossand a mother of two boys, suggests the latest research confirms there are significant benefits in exposing children to dogs to reduce stress.

Dorn told Healthline that exposing children to healthy and well-tempered dogs can provide several other stress-busting benefits.

They include the following:

  • Positive, loyal, and unconditional love and connection (ie, a sense of belonging).
  • Important lessons about caregiving, which can build confidence and a secure sense of self.
  • An avenue to focus outside of the self, providing a distraction from stress and anxiety.
  • Increase in social skills and a decrease in behavior struggles.
  • A sense of security that can make children feel safe.
  • Sensory and nervous system stimulation and regulation through petting or holding the dog.

Dr. Sandra Bonat, is a pediatric physician advisor at VIP StarNetwork, a provider of mobile and onsite health services. She completed her residency program in general pediatrics and a fellowship in pediatric endocrinology.

Bonat told Healthline that if the child has never been around a dog before, it is important to give the child some exposure to a dog prior to bringing a dog into the family.

This can be done either through interaction with a friend or a family member’s dog or in another type of controlled setting.

Akua Boetang, Ph.D., a licensed psychotherapist and member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, told Healthline that parents can help children make the most of having a dog with the following strategies:

  • Allow children to identify how the pet may be apart of their emotional wellness.
  • Educate the child on how caring for the pet could serve as a potential stress reliever.
  • Make sure responsibility connected to the dog doesn’t add more stress to the child.

temperament

“Look for a dog that is calm, confident, affectionate, and friendly,” said Bonat.

Dorn agrees, noting that high-maintenance dogs or dogs with a history of aggression have the potential to increase anxiety within a family and household.

Family Involvement

“It can be helpful to do some research and investigating before involving your child in the process,” said Dorn.

“Talk with your child about this possible new addition to your family and allow them to meet potential dogs to find one they feel a connection with,” she added.

Timing of Introduction

Consider the timing of the dog’s arrival into the home, said Bonat.

“Ensure that there is enough time to pay attention to the new dog and to make sure that family members are home and can set up a routine with the dog,” she advised.

Family Commitment

Socialization, training, and exercise are all important for a dog’s well-being.

This time commitment should be considered prior to bringing a dog into the family, said Bonat.

Financial Ability

Dogs can be wonderful stress relievers, but they need care and can be an incredibly significant financial commitment, notes Dorn.

Consider what veterinarian your dog will go to and the cost of food, vet visits, and potential unexpected medical costs.

“If you think you can handle these commitments, great. If your family decides a dog might be too great of a commitment, a smaller pet may be a consideration,” she said.

“Though dogs are wonderful companions, your child will still experience many of the same stress-relieving benefits from any pet that works well for your family,” Dorn added.

Adult Supervision

Parental involvement and supervision (particularly in children under age 10) are necessary to make dog ownership positive for the family, says Bonat.

“Young children and those with special needs may not have the maturity to control their aggressive or angry impulses and should be monitored at all times with the dog,” she explains.

Model behavior

Bear in mind you set the tone for the household.

Bonat says parents should teach the child the proper way to care for the dog and to treat the dog in a kind and patient manner.

If your family already has a dog (or several), and your child or children are still experiencing high levels of stress, you may be wondering what you can do next.

Bonat suggests parents have the child play a more active role in the dog’s care.

“They can also have the child do activities with the dog such as taking the dog for a walk, playing with the dog in the yard, or training the dog to do new commands or tricks,” she says.

But ultimately, if your child is still feeling high levels of stress despite spending time with a dog or dogs, other forms of stress reduction should be considered and implemented, says Bonat.

“This can include exercise, meditation, mindfulness, play therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT),” she said.

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