Should we be prescribing dogs instead of Prozac or Valium to treat stress in children?
The school bus dropped my granddaughter off at my home. From the way that she clomped up the stairs, with her head hung low I knew that she had had a bad day at school. Children are often unkind in the way that they relate to kids who have disabilities which makes my granddaughter a frequent target for her classmates. She tossed her backpack next to the door and threw herself onto the sofa and I knew that in a moment or two her elevated stress level was going to cause her to burst out in anger or in tears.
At that moment my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, poked his head out of my office. My granddaughter saw him, shifted her position from the sofa to the floor, and called him over to her. He ran over and she fondled his soft ears in her hands while she murmured "I love you Ripley. Do you love me?" The dog responded by licking her face and wagging his tail. She gave a little smile and her muscles seem to be slowly unknotting and the expected torrent of emotions did not come. Some 10 or 15 minutes later she seemed calm enough to return to normal, and she climbed back up on the sofa and turned on the television to her favorite kids programming channel, patting the cushion next to her to invite the little dog back onto her lap.
I have seen variants of this scenario unfold many times in my home, however I suppose that the reason that this episode caught my attention more than usual was because I had just encountered a new study which looked at the ability of dogs to buffer the stress experienced by young children. This research was conducted by a team of researchers led by Darlene Kertes from the Psychology Department of the University of Florida in Gainesville. The findings were published in the journal Social Development.
It seems as though we sometimes forget that children are just as subject to stress effects as are adults. In one survey conducted by the American Psychological Association it was reported that nearly one third of the children interviewed had experienced a stress associated physical symptom in the previous month. The problem is that not only are there short-term symptomatic problems because of stress, such as sleep disturbance, headaches, or stomach aches, but also the possibility of longer-term health issues such as depression, anxiety, and ulcers. So any way that we can buffer the stress responses in children may ultimately have lasting consequences.
This new study study involved 101 families with children between the ages of 7 and 12. All of these families also had a pet dog.
Of course a study like this must have a situation which will induce some level of stress in the children being tested. These researchers chose to give the participant kids two tasks. The first involved preparing a short speech which they then had to give to two strangers who served as "judges". The second involved a mental arithmetic problem which had to be performed in front of the same judges. These tasks are known to cause stress measured both by the reports of participants and by their cortisol levels. Cortisol is one of the stress hormone secreted by the adrenal glands.
For the purposes of this investigation the children had to engage in these tasks under one of three conditions. In the first condition their parent was present to provide some sort of emotional support. In the second only the family dog was present. In the third condition no one was present at all to provide any form of support. The amount of stress experienced by the children was measured before testing, during the stress inducing tasks, and later after a brief recovery period using a pictorial questionnaire which showed people experiencing different emotions ranging from totally relaxed to totally stressed out. At the same time saliva samples were collected which could later be tested for the concentration of cortisol.
The results revealed that the children's stress levels were affected depending upon the nature of the social support that was available. Perhaps because children during middle childhood are beginning to rely less on their parents for social support and guidance and more upon their friends and acquaintances, there was little difference in their psychological experience of stress between performing the tasks alone or having their parent present. However having the family dog present produced a significant drop in the children's reports of their feeling of being stressed. This may be because the dog provides support without judgment or evaluation, while the child has often to experienced their parents evaluating their behavior, or agreeing with the evaluation given by others, such as teachers (or perhaps in this instance perhaps the judges).
Looking at the hormonal changes produces a slightly more complicated result. If you just look at the overall findings there is little change in the level of the stress hormone cortisol over the three conditions. However if you look inside the global results, something interesting appears. Simply having the dogs hovering around the children on their own doesn't seem to have much of a stress buffering effect. However, a large percentage of the children actively solicited their dogs to come over to them, so that they could be petted, stroked, or interacted with. For these children who specifically sought and received contact comfort from their dogs there was a drop in their cortisol levels indicating a significant reduction in their stress level.
So the results seem to show that at the psychological level, simply having a dog nearby is enough to lower a child's feelings of being stressed when demands are being made upon them. However, if the child seeks out direct interaction with the dog, including touching and petting, not only are there psychological reductions in the stress felt by the child, but there are actual physiological changes which reduce the concentration of the stress hormones that ultimately can do sustained damage to the child's mental and physical health.
So perhaps, when it comes to managing moderate levels of stress for children during their middle childhood, dogs are the new Prozac.
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Darlene A. Kertes, Jingwen Liu, Nathan J. Hall, Natalie A. Hadad, Clive D. L. Wynne and Samarth S. Bhatt (2017). Effect of Pet Dogs on Children's Perceived Stress and Cortisol Stress Response. Social Development, 26 (2), 382-401. doi: 10.1111/sode.12203