A new study confirmed what I’d assume most people already knew: a pet dog provides valuable moral support for a kid.
Pet ownership affects children in more ways than one, generally with an overwhelmingly positive impact. It starts with basic, physical health — having a dog tends to make you healthier because you have to walk it. The same principle applies to adults and children alike, as a 2010 study showed that kids in England who had a dog exercised on average 11 minutes more every day. Another, 2012 study reported that kids with an early contact with cats and dogs are healthier and have fewer respiratory infections and ear infections, requiring fewer antibiotics on average. Dogs also have a positive mental effect on kids, as several studies have shown.
“Pet ownership appears to be a significant factor for facilitating social interaction and friendship formation within neighborhoods,” Dr. Lisa Wood, associate professor at the University of Western Australia, wrote a 2015 study via Harvard Health Publications. “For pet owners, this also translates into new sources of social support, both of a practical and emotionally supportive nature.”
Recently, in 2017, another paper showed that kids take more from their relationships with pet dogs than you’d expect — even more than their relationship with siblings. So it should come as no surprise really that dogs really help kids feel better. But seeing something happen and confirming it scientifically are two different beasts, as Darlene Kertes and colleagues from the University of Florida explained.
“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.”
They recruited approximately 100 pet-owning families who were willing to come to the lab with their dogs. To assess the kids’ mental stress, researchers asked them to complete a speaking task and a mental arithmetic task, which are known to evoke feelings of stress and raise stress hormones. Kids were assigned to do these tasks either by themselves, alongside their parents, or alongside their dog.
“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.”
They didn’t only rely on the reports of children, they also gathered saliva samples from them to assess the level of cortisol (one of the hormones associated with stress). They took samples before and after the task, finding not only that the presence of the dog helped, but also that the interaction between the child and dog further improved things.
“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 study carries an important weight, confirming a popular belief (you’d probably be surprised to see how often these popular beliefs are actually contradicted by science). Middle childhood is an extremely important period in the development of all humans, where even trivial events can be extremely stressful and have long-lasting effects on the psyche. Having something that helps kids deal with stress, and provides them with a friend can be invaluable, and will undoubtedly teach them valuable lessons about life.
Journal Reference: Darlene A. Kertes, Jingwen Liu, Nathan J. Hall, Natalie A. Hadad, Clive D. L. Wynne, Samarth S. Bhatt — Effect of Pet Dogs on Children’s Perceived Stress and Cortisol Stress Response. DOI: 10.1111/sode.12203
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