GAINVESVILLE, Fla. (CBS) — A new study reveals that a pet dog can help reduce a child’s stress more than a parent.
According to researchers at the University of Florida, children receive valuable support from pet dogs.
“Many people think pet dogs are great for kids but scientists aren’t sure if that’s true or how it happens,” Darlene Kertes, an assistant professor in the university’s psychology department, told UF News. “How we learn to deal with stress as children has lifelong consequences for how we cope with stress as adults.”
Researchers conducted the study on nearly 100-pet owning families. The researchers had children between the ages of 7 and 12 complete public speaking and mental arithmetic tasks to heighten their stress levels. Increasing the child’s stress also raised the stress hormone cortisol.
The researchers then randomly assigned children to experience the stressful tasks with their dog for support, with their parent, 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,” said Kertes, the study’s author. “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.”
Researchers collected samples of saliva before and after the tasks to check the children’s cortisol levels. For the children who had their pet dogs for social support, their cortisol levels varied with regard to the interaction they had with 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. “When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”
Kertes continued, “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. 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.”
The study was recently published in the journal Social Development.