Therapy pets have become increasingly common because of their range of established health benefits. They can have a range of effects on mental health (such as lowering anxiety, loneliness, and increasing feelings of relaxation) and physical health (such as helping lower blood pressure).
Researchers at the University of Lincoln in the U.K conducted a study that provides further evidence that dogs can be an effective way to help school-aged, both with and without special needs, lower their stress levels. Results of the study are published in PLOS ONE.
To understand the ways in which dogs helped lower stress levels in school-age kids, researchers collected saliva samples to monitor levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in 105 children without special needs ages eight to nine in the United Kingdom. Researchers also followed 44 children of the same age with special needs who attended special education schools. Children at all schools were randomized to receive one of the following treatments: dog therapy, relaxation therapy, or no therapy (control group).
Dog therapy consisted of twice-weekly interactions with a therapy dog and the dog’s handler.
Findings from the study found that participants in the dog therapy group, regardless of which school they were at, had lower levels of cortisol in their saliva compared to other groups. Lower cortisol levels were noted almost immediately after dog therapy sessions.
All children presented with higher cortisol following relaxation therapy or no therapy at all.
Researchers say these findings confirm the role dog therapy can play in reducing stress levels in children, though more work is needed to determine how much time spent with a dog is effective.
Stress reduction, in particular, can be crucial for children. Experiencing stress for long periods of time can be especially harmful to a child’s learning, mental wellbeing, and overall development. That’s why schools, especially, have explored various ways to integrate stress relief strategies.