Coping with childhood stress: could a dog be the answer?

New study suggests having a pet dog may help children deal with stress

Human Animal Interaction

Nana is one of the great dogs of children’s fiction. As “nursemaid” to the Darling family in J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, she fulfils not just day to day housekeeping duties, but provides emotional support as well. As such she is in a great narrative tradition of faithful, caring hounds, from Homer’s Argos to J K Rowling’s Fang.

The bond between children and animals is as powerful as it is timeless. From folk tales to modern fiction, the relationship has continued to provide fertile ground for story tellers. Dogs particularly feature as ideal pets for young people, providing support and companionship through the trials of childhood. But is there any evidence that this effect is real? And if it can be proven to be effective, what might be the therapeutic pet potential for kids under pressure?

To find out, a team at Kent State University, USA, funded by the National Institutes of Health/Mars-WALTHAM public private partnership, tested 99 preadolescent youngsters along with their pet dogs. The results have just been published in the journal Social Development.

“I’ve long been interested in children’s relationships with their parents and how this relates to their social and emotional development,” says lead investigator Kathryn Kerns. “So focussing on pets was a new direction. We were curious as to whether children can compensate for inadequate relationships with parents and peers through relationships with animals.”

A tried and trusted test

Measuring whether dogs can reduce stress, however, is tricky. Individuals might have differing responses to tests. Ethically, researchers do not want to over-expose vulnerable children to stress factors. A solution is the Trier Social Stress Test. Designed by a team at the eponymous German university, it uses simple repeatable tasks that induce manageable stress levels, whilst measuring physiological changes to the body.

For the test, around 100 children from dog owning families were asked to quickly prepare and deliver a speech about themselves in front of two impassive researchers. Half the children did the test together with their pet dog, and half without. They then rated the experience as positive or negative on 5 point scale, using 6 positive emotion words (excited, happy, calm, comfortable, proud, cheerful), and 6 negative emotion words (mad, nervous, upset, sad, lonely, guilty). This enabled the researchers to create average scores for positive and negative “affect” - in other words, create a measure for how the child is “feeling” emotionally.

The high-frequency heart rate variability (HF-HRV) of the subjects was also assessed during the sessions.

The dogs deliver

Children reported higher positive affect when they completed the task with their pet dog, although there were no differences for negative affect or HF-HRV.

The team also monitored how much the children touched or talked to their dogs for reassurance. Children who had more physical contact with their dog reported higher positive affect. The findings suggest contact with pets is associated with enhanced positive affect.

“Our primary finding was that the presence of a pet enhances reported positive emotion,” says Kerns. “The mood enhancing effects of dogs happened equally for all children, regardless of their relationships with family members and friends. What we need to establish now is how this happens. It could be a classically conditioned response to the presence of the pet, or children may have found the task less threatening when the dog was there. Or it could be that the pet’s presence offered social support and feelings of social connection. We could test this by running the same experiment using different kinds of pets that don’t socially interact like dogs do – such as aquarium fish.”

The team are also interested in whether dog ownership might have different impacts for children of different ages. Preadolescent children had been used in the study because it is thought that they are especially likely to view pets as friends. It is possible that in early childhood other figures such as parents or older siblings would have greater importance. Indeed, young children may view dogs more as play objects than as “friends” at that stage. Similarly it is possible that the importance of pets as support figures declines in adolescence as children increasingly turn to peers for support. Longer term studies would be needed to understand at what age pets might be most significant as support providers.

“A further important direction for future research will be to investigate biological mechanisms that might account for the positive impact of contact with pets,” says Kerns. “Physical contact is associated with increased release of oxytocin, in samples of children and pet dogs, suggesting that oxytocin may be another underlying biological mechanism deserving of greater attention.”

Kerns KA, Stuart-Parrigon KL, Coifman KG, van Dulmen MHM, Koehn A. Pet dogs: Does their presence influence preadolescents' emotional responses to a social stressor? Social Development. 2017;00:1–11.
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