boy and dog looking out the window

Human Animal Interaction

Creature comforts: pet dogs provide stress relief for children

New study shows pet dogs can provide children with emotional support

It’s not unusual to see a child clinging to a parent’s leg and visibly shrinking to avoid someone unfamiliar.

They react in this way because for young children meeting someone new can be relatively stressful. They aren’t yet able to self-help and as a way of coping seek ‘stress buffering’ support from a parent.

‘Stress buffering’ acts to dial down the emotional and physical effects of stress. But why should we care? Well, its effectiveness predicts how we deal with stress during later childhood and as an adult.

Once we reach ‘middle childhood’ (around 7-12 years), we look beyond our parents for support, towards our broader social contacts. For instance, the companionship of a pet dog can start to fill this key role.

Pet dog support

Pet dogs reduce feelings of anxiety and promote social interactions in children. However, the full value and impact of child-companion animal interactions on how children develop resilience to stress is unknown.

So a team of researchers in the United States funded by National Institutes of Health/Mars–WALTHAM™ Public Private Partnership investigated whether pet dogs buffer stress responses in 101 children aged 7-12 years. Their findings were recently published in the journal Social Development and provide intriguing insights into effects of human-animal interactions (HAI) in childhood.

Social stress testing

The team used a well-established social stress test for their laboratory-based studies. Essentially, the test consisted of a 5 minute speech and 5 minute mental arithmetic task. The children were asked to perform the task in front of two ‘judges’. One group performed the test accompanied by their dog, another by a parent, and the third group were unaccompanied.

After the test, the children were asked to report how stressed they felt before, during and after. A specialised scale was used with pictures to represent emotions. The team also used a more direct measure to independently assess the body’s response to stress. Using saliva samples collected from the children they measured the levels of a stress hormone called cortisol.

Non-judgmental support

Overall the results suggested that having a pet dog present reduces how stressful the social test is for children. The stress lowering effects of being accompanied by a pet dog even appeared to surpass that of parents.

“The sense of being judged is often a trigger for feeling stressed or anxious in social situations” said Darlene Kertes, lead author, University of Florida. “In middle childhood, we become increasingly concerned with how other people view us and we incorporate this into our self-image. Children around this age become sensitive to the ways in which other evaluate them during social interactions, which can make them stressful. The non-judgemental nature of dog companionship may explain the supportive effects of having a pet dog present”.

Complex cortisol response

The cortisol results were less straightforward. However, examining the interaction between individual children and their pet was revealing. For instance, the cortisol response appeared to be related to aspects of child-dog interaction. The more a child initiated and carried out petting of their dog, the lower the level of cortisol. Petting may have changed the physical response, without the child sensing and thereby reporting a reduction in overall stress levels.

Foundational study

This was the first study to rigorously test and demonstrate stress buffering effect of pet dogs on children’s emotional response to a stressful situation.

“These findings provide clear and compelling evidence that pet dogs have direct emotional and physical effects on children during incidences of stress” said Sandra McCune, Human-Animal Interaction Scientific Leader, WALTHAM™. “Future research should examine whether the personality or temperament of a child or the quality of the relationship with their dog has an impact”.