Stressed? Hug a dog and call in the morning

Interacting with dogs may help children cope.

Gregory Nemec

Gregory Nemec

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Charlie Brown assured the world that happiness is a warm puppy. Today, programs using animals for mental health intervention are proliferating. But researchers want to understand whether it’s the dogs themselves, or other factors—such as interactions with the human handlers—that provide benefits.

In a recent study led by Molly Crossman, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology, a Yale research team examined the stress-reduction effects on children of interacting with dogs. The findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology.

Seventy-eight children, aged 10 to 13, were tested individually. Each answered a questionnaire measuring mood, anxiety level, attachment to companion animals, and experiences with dogs. Saliva samples measured baseline levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In front of two adult strangers, each child then told a story and did mental arithmetic. (Children could opt out if they chose.)

Afterward, each child was randomly assigned to one of three rooms to de-stress for 15 minutes. In one, children played with a therapy dog. In another, they simply waited. In the third, children were given a soft, heavy blanket to hold while they waited. (Tactile stimulation can reduce stress.) Finally, every child retook the questionnaire and was retested for cortisol.

The results were intriguing but mixed. The children who interacted with the dogs showed higher positive mood scores than the others—but holding the blankets was about as effective in reducing anxiety as playing with the dogs. And while both the dogs and the blankets were more effective than simply waiting, the saliva tests showed no differences in physiological stress response.

The research continues. Meanwhile, says Crossman, the evidence does suggest that “something about interacting with dogs may improve kids’ responses to stress.”

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