Dogs can buffer stress experienced by young children

Should we be prescribing dogs instead of Prozac or Valium to treat stress in children?

The school bus dropped my granddaughter off at my home. From the way that she clomped up the stairs, with her head hung low I knew that she had had a bad day at school. Children are often unkind in the way that they relate to kids who have disabilities which makes my granddaughter a frequent target for her classmates. She tossed her backpack next to the door and threw herself onto the sofa and I knew that in a moment or two her elevated stress level was going to cause her to burst out in anger or in tears.

At that moment my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, poked his head out of my office. My granddaughter saw him, shifted her position from the sofa to the floor, and called him over to her. He ran over and she fondled his soft ears in her hands while she murmured "I love you Ripley. Do you love me?" The dog responded by licking her face and wagging his tail. She gave a little smile and her muscles seem to be slowly unknotting and the expected torrent of emotions did not come. Some 10 or 15 minutes later she seemed calm enough to return to normal, and she climbed back up on the sofa and turned on the television to her favorite kids programming channel, patting the cushion next to her to invite the little dog back onto her lap.

I have seen variants of this scenario unfold many times in my home, however I suppose that the reason that this episode caught my attention more than usual was because I had just encountered a new study which looked at the ability of dogs to buffer the stress experienced by young children. This research was conducted by a team of researchers led by Darlene Kertes from the Psychology Department of the University of Florida in Gainesville. The findings were published in the journal Social Development.

It seems as though we sometimes forget that children are just as subject to stress effects as are adults. In one survey conducted by the American Psychological Association it was reported that nearly one third of the children interviewed had experienced a stress associated physical symptom in the previous month. The problem is that not only are there short-term symptomatic problems because of stress, such as sleep disturbance, headaches, or stomach aches, but also the possibility of longer-term health issues such as depression, anxiety, and ulcers. So any way that we can buffer the stress responses in children may ultimately have lasting consequences.

This new study study involved 101 families with children between the ages of 7 and 12. All of these families also had a pet dog.