STRESS
May 22, 2017

Pups Help Kids Cope

The challenges of school and growing up are much easier to handle with a dog by your side.

Thinking of getting your child a dog? It's probably a good idea. Dogs offer kids a chance to play and exercise and practice taking responsibility for another living being. But they do something even more important.

Family dogs help their children handle the stresses of childhood, a very stressful University of Florida study has found.

Being tested in front of a parent appeared to be more stressful for children than being alone was.

Over 100 children, ages 7 to 12, who lived with pet dogs were given two stressful tasks: a public speaking task followed by a math task.

The study took place inside a research laboratory, making it a little stressful from the start. An experimenter read the beginning of a story to a child and told them to make up an ending that would be better and more interesting than other children's endings. Kids were given five minutes to think of an ending, then the experimenter left and two judges wearing white lab coats entered and sat down. The child, who was standing, faced the judges and a conspicuously placed video camera and began to tell their made-up tale. If the story lasted less than five minutes, the judges prompted the child to keep going and tell them more.

Who wouldn't feel stressed? And if you have a dog, wouldn't you want them there for company?

As if that weren't enough, in the final five minutes the child had to do a mental arithmetic task involving serial subtraction. If they made a mistake, they had to start over, and if they didn't, a judge told them to work faster. This test also lasted five minutes.

Children were randomly assigned to face the tasks without a companion, with a parent present, and or with their pet dog with them. Afterwards, each child completed a questionnaire about how stressed they felt before, during and after their ordeal.

Children who had their dogs with them reported experiencing less stress than the children in the other two groups. On a nine-point scale, the perceived rise in stress during the tasks averaged 3.33 for children who were alone, but only 1.80 for those who had the dog with them. Being tested in front of a parent — parents take note — appeared to be more stressful than being alone was, with a reported increase in stress of 3.76. A possible explanation is that, though it hasn't been proven, dogs are likely to be less judgmental than parents are.

The relationship between dogs and children is special, as other studies have shown. Service dogs can improve the life of autistic children and their parent, and pet dogs can help children feel less fearful and anxious. This study was a randomized controlled trial, a notch more rigorous than these previous efforts.

An article on the study appears in Child Development and is freely available.

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