Dogs can help reduce stress in children

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Experts say spending time with dogs can help reduce stress levels in children. Daniela Jovanovska-Hristovska/Getty Images
  • In a new study, researchers claim that interactions with dogs help lower stress hormone levels in children.
  • Experts say owning a dog can also help teach children responsibility and social interaction.
  • They note, however, that parents should consider the financial and time commitments of having a dog.

Spending time with dogs can help reduce stress in children.

It’s according to a new study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

The study looked at stress levels in children in the UK before and after spending 20 minutes with a trained dog and a professional dog handler. The sessions took place twice a week for four weeks.

The results were compared to a control group of children who didn’t spend time with dogs and a group who practiced meditation instead.

The researchers said that children who spent time with dogs had significantly lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels after their interactions than either the control group or the meditation group. This was the case in both mainstream and special schools.

The researchers said that dog interventions can successfully reduce stress levels in school children, but they also point out that more research is needed to determine the optimal time spent with dogs to reduce stress.

The results of the new study match the findings of previous research.

A Literature review 2018 reported that dogs provide stress relief and social support in terms of increasing social interaction, alleviating loneliness and depression, and possibly increasing physical activity.

Andrea DornMSW, clinical social worker, author of When Someone Dies: A Practical Guide for Children to Grief and Lossand mother of two boys, suggests that the latest research confirms that there are significant benefits of exposing children to dogs to reduce stress.

Dorn told Healthline that exposing children to healthy, good-natured dogs can provide several other stress-busting benefits.

They include the following:

  • Positive, loyal and unconditional love and connection (i.e. a sense of belonging).
  • Important lessons about caregiving, which can build confidence and a sense of self-confidence.
  • An avenue to focus outside of yourself, providing a distraction from stress and anxiety.
  • Increase in social skills and decrease in behavioral problems.
  • A sense of security that can make children feel safe.
  • Stimulation and regulation of the sensory and nervous system by stroking or holding the dog.

Dr. Sandra Bonat, is a consultant pediatrician at VIP StarNetwork, a provider of mobile and on-site health services. She completed her residency program in general pediatrics and a fellowship in pediatric endocrinology.

Bonat told Healthline that if the child has never been around a dog before, it’s important to give them some exposure to a dog before bringing a dog into the family.

This can be done either through interaction with a friend or family member’s dog, or in some other type of controlled setting.

Akua BoetangPh.D., licensed psychotherapist and member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapytold Healthline that parents can help children get the most out of having a dog with the following strategies:

  • Allow children to identify how the animal can be part of their emotional well-being.
  • Educate the child on how caring for the animal could serve as a potential stress reliever.
  • Make sure the dog responsibility does not add more stress to the child.

Temperament

“Look for a calm, confident, affectionate and friendly dog,” Bonat said.

Dorn agrees, noting that high-maintenance dogs or dogs with a history of aggression have the potential to increase anxiety within a family and household.

Family involvement

“It can be helpful to research and investigate before involving your child in the process,” Dorn said.

“Talk with your child about this possible new addition to your family and allow them to meet potential dogs to find one they feel a connection to,” she added.

Timing of introduction

Consider the timing of the dog’s arrival in the house, Bonat said.

“Make sure there is enough time to pay attention to the new dog and to make sure family members are home and can establish a routine with the dog,” she advised.

Family commitment

Socialization, training, and exercise are all important for a dog’s well-being.

This time commitment should be considered before bringing a dog into the family, Bonat said.

Financial capacity

Dogs can be wonderful pain relievers, but they need grooming and can be an incredibly large financial commitment, Dorn notes.

Consider which vet your dog will go to and the cost of food, vet visits and any unexpected medical bills.

“If you think you can handle those commitments, great. If your family decides a dog might be too big of a commitment, a smaller pet might be a consideration,” she said.

“While dogs are wonderful companions, your child will still experience many of the same stress-relieving benefits of any well-functioning pet for your family,” Dorn added.

Adult supervision

Parental involvement and supervision (especially in children under 10) is necessary for dog ownership to be positive for the family, says Bonat.

“Younger children and those with special needs may not have the maturity to control their aggressive or angry impulses and should be supervised with the dog at all times,” she explains.

Model behavior

Keep in mind that you are setting the tone for the housework.

Bonat says parents should teach the child the proper way to care for the dog and treat the dog with kindness and patience.

If your family already has a dog (or more) and your child or children are still experiencing high levels of stress, you may be wondering what you can do next.

Bonat suggests to parents that the child take a more active role in caring for the dog.

“They can also ask the child to do activities with the dog, such as walking the dog, playing with the dog in the yard, or training the dog to do new commands or tricks,” she says.

But ultimately, if your child is still experiencing high levels of stress despite spending time with a dog or dogs, other forms of stress reduction should be considered and implemented, says Bonat. .

“This can include exercise, meditation, mindfulness, play therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT),” she said.

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