Can Dogs Help Kids Experiencing Stress?

Updated: May 02, 2019
Published: April 23, 2018
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Dogs have been used in various ways to provide comfort and support for humans. Whether they provide emotional support to a single person or act as a therapy dog for hospital patients or victims of a traumatic event like a natural disaster, people often find that they can escape a certain moment in time when they are in a dog’s presence. Their steady demeanor in the face of so much stress and pain, both physical or mental, provides stress relief for everyone—but what about children?

Can Dogs Help Kids Who Are Stressed?

In a study from the University of Florida, researchers examined whether or not children feel similar relief in the presence of a dog by examining their levels of stress when placed in different situations. The study found that children who were able to call for their pet dog to approach them in stressful situations had lower cortisol levels (the primary stress hormone) than those who did not. They did not find this effect in children whose dogs approached them on their own without being solicited by the children. When faced with a situation where a child feels stress or pressure, calling out to their dog might be a coping mechanism. Additionally, distracting themselves by petting and interacting with their dog provides an emotional outlet. The dog’s presence may also create an environment in which they feel more supported without being judged like they may be by their peers, parents and other adults in the vicinity.

I suspect the children in which the dog approached them without the children calling them may not have be ready for interaction with anyone. When the dog solicited attention, the child may have felt extra pressure because they did not have time to interact with the dog or may have felt distracted by too many things occurring in their environment. The study did not indicate the temperament of the dog or the types of behavior the dogs exhibited to both groups of children. A calmer dog may provide comfort whereas a more energetic, anxious, excitable or unruly dog may be disruptive to the environment, therefore becomes an additional stressor for the child.

The Benefits of Having a Pet Dog

The long-term benefits of having a dog in which the child has developed a strong bond with can provide stability in a child’s world. The dog may provide acceptance without judgement, something that many people and children need in their lives. Research has also shown that having a dog may provide long-term benefits to children who have autism.

If a dog’s mere presence provides comfort and keeps the child’s stress level low, a child may be able to learn some coping skills that they can use reliably as they mature. This would allow them to handle many of life’s twists and turns with minimal detrimental impact on their mental health. However, not all dogs are ideal candidates to serve in this capacity. Careful selection is needed to find a dog that has a stable temperament that provide comfort and allow the child to seek solace when they need to.