At some point in every parent’s life, they will inevitably be faced with a question that ends with multiple iterations of the word “please” and begins with “Can we get a dog?”
There will of course be numerous pros and cons when weighing up your decision, but one point that probably won’t spring to mind readily or even at all is the potential effect that a pet dog could have on the levels of stress in your children’s lives. Numerous scientific studies have researched how interacting with dogs can positively affect the hormones in our body, and with this post, we look into the many ways that owning a dog can help to relieve stress, particularly in a child.
How Dogs Can Help Decrease Stress
Dogs seem to possess a special ability to make people instantly feel good, wherever they may be. But research suggests that this statement is actually more than just a generalized observation, and may have some serious scientific weight behind it.
The feel-good hormone oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone”, plays a major role in parent-child relationships, as it encourages a parent to bond with their newborn baby and feel love for it despite its not being able to talk or communicate yet. One study shows that we can get a similar boost of oxytocin just by making eye contact with our dog.
The release of oxytocin has numerous positive effects on the body, but one of the best is its ability to reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is our body’s built-in alarm system, and its main stress hormone. In addition to less stress, increased oxytocin and decreased cortisol are linked to lower blood pressure, triglyceride and cholesterol, all indicators of heart disease or a potential heart attack.
In fact, there are numerous studies that emphasize this, such as one that shows that following a heart attack, patients who own a dog are “significantly less likely to die within one year than those that did not”. In another study which paired PTSD patients with a service dog, 84% reported a significant reduction in stress-related symptoms.
How Dogs Can Help Children Specifically
Stress is often associated with the hardships of adulting: staying ahead at work, keeping the family happy, paying the bills, as well as juggling everything else. It can often be overlooked that stress is a common feeling for children too, with a 2010 study illustrating that a third of children reported feeling stressed in the month previous.
Subsequent to these findings, further studies have identified the link between owning a pet and decreased levels of stress in children. One research project compared children who owned dogs with those who didn’t, and found that the amount of children suffering from anxiety was almost double in the non-dog group.
Another study tasked 101 children with performing public speaking and mental arithmetic tasks, and divided participants into three groups: those who had their pet dog with them; those with a parent; and those on their own. The results found that “children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels”.
Dogs can help children with stress longer term, too. Through their faithful pet pooch, kids can learn important life characteristics such as developing empathy, social skills and a positive self-image. Kids can interact with their dog without fear or rejection (as they might from a parent or teacher), which can help build their confidence and even their vocabulary. Furthermore, dogs have been shown to help alleviate separation anxiety, crucial for those parents who have to be out of the hours at strange hours or travel a lot for work.
Owning a pet dog can also help nurture a child’s creative side. Children can often be more readily encouraged to draw or paint a picture if the subject is their dog, and may be more inclined to engage with and enjoy reading time if the story focuses around them and their dog, as is the case with a personalized pet book.
Children with Special Needs
Dogs can be an amazing addition to the life of a child with autism, particularly in stressful situations. Specially trained therapy dogs can help autistic children feel more safe and secure in a range of situations, and particularly in social settings. Many studies have shown that children with autism are more talkative and engaged in sessions with other children when dogs are present, as well as being less aggressive.
Dogs find it easy to bond with humans through non-verbal interactions, and this non-judgmental relationship can be a crucial one for an autistic child learning to feel more comfortable in more social environments. Therapy dogs can also help and encourage in everyday tasks which can be more problematic for a child with autism, such as going to bed, getting dressed, exercising and taking public transport.