Study: Dogs Reduce Stress for Kids

May 17, 2017
Written by Patrick Glass

Stress can be a good thing. Despite the prevailing wisdom that stress is inherently unhealthy and psychologically toxic, stress is an essential motivator on both an emotional and biological level.

The problem with stress, however, is that it can quickly overwhelm people – especially if they lack techniques for appropriately mitigating stress’ negative effects on mind and body.

Another myth of stress and wellbeing is that it only affects adults. A 2011 study from the American Psychological Association found that: “Almost a third of children reported that in the last month they had experienced a physical health symptom often associated with stress, such as headaches, stomach aches or trouble falling or staying asleep. In addition, parents don’t realize their own stress is affecting their kids.”

The truth is that children’s susceptibility to stress shouldn’t surprise us. As kids grow, their “emotional and physiological responses to stress are still developing.” Hence children tend to experience stress differently than adults do, often mirroring behavioral and emotional responses of the people and circumstances around them.

Fortunately, researchers have originated a simple solution for helping kids cope with stress: get a dog!

In a 2016 study, social development researchers from the University of Florida exposed 101 children aged 7-12 to laboratory-standardized stress. Participants were asked to perform mental math and a public speaking exercise. Some of the participants completed these tasks with parents present in the test room, while others did so with only the family dog present for support. A control group completed the tasks without any social support from parents or pets.

After completing the tests, researchers asked the children about their perceived levels of stress and also took saliva samples to measure stress hormones. Results suggested that children in the dog group experienced significantly less self-reported stress than the other two experimental groups, although the researchers noted that “cortisol change over time did not significantly differ by experimental condition.” 

One unexpected finding was that children who initiated contact with the dogs exhibited lower stress symptoms than children who were provoked into petting by the dogs themselves.

Either way, the answer is clear: if you’re worried about how stress impacts your kids, you might consider getting them a furry friend!