A new study published in PLOS ONE looked at whether dogs can reduce stress levels in school children.
“Our research is the first to demonstrate the mediating effects of dog-assisted interventions on stress levels in school children over the school term and in both, children with and without special educational needs,” study author Kerstin Meints told us. “Our study compared cortisol levels in UK primary school children who participated in dog-assisted intervention sessions, relaxation sessions, or no intervention.”
The researchers measured stress levels (via stress hormone cortisol in the saliva) in 105, eight to nine-year-old children in mainstream schools as well as in 44 children in special education needs schools. The children were randomly stratified into three groups: a dog group, relaxation group or control group.
In the dog group, participants interacted for 20 minutes with a trained dog and handler; the relaxation meditation group involved a 20-minute relaxation session, twice a week for four weeks. The control group attended school as normal.
“There are theories which explain, for example, why children are attracted to animals, and that dogs can be a social facilitators, provide social support, create a positive social atmosphere and have a calming effect, and that interacting with a dog can lead to lower stress levels,” Meints told us. “One such theory which integrates complex and dynamic interactions between social, psychological and biological factors is called the biopsychosocial model.”
Taking the existing theories into account, the researchers predicted that dog-assisted interventions would lead to lowest cortisol levels in children when comparing the dog intervention group to a relaxation intervention and a no treatment control group.
They also predicted that relaxation interventions would hold an intermediate position between the no treatment group and the dog intervention.
“We also compared neurotypically developing children with those with special educational needs and we expected both cohorts to benefit from dog-assisted interventions,” Meints told us. “We also investigated if group or individual interventions had benefits.”
Prolonged or excessive stress can negatively affect learning, educational attainment, behaviour and health. To alleviate negative effects of stress in school children, stressors should be reduced, and support and effective interventions should be provided. Dog-assisted interventions are one example of interventions that may lead to lower stress.
“We have currently very little evidence which interventions work best to alleviate stress in school children,” Meints told us, “so this is why we tested children in dog-assisted and relaxation interventions and a no treatment control group in a randomized controlled trial.”
The researchers found that stress levels rise significantly in children over the school term (in our no treatment control group) and that dog-assisted interventions work well with children in mainstream schools to keep stress levels lower over the school term if carried out individually or groups.
“We also found a clear reduction in stress levels in children with special educational needs over the school term if dog interventions are with small groups of children,” Meints told us. “And that relaxation interventions show some protective effects in the mainstream school cohort only.”
Previous results employed different design and testing methods and there were some mixed results on the question if dogs have stress-mediating effects.
“Our study is the first to look at stress levels over the school term and with two cohorts, and in individual and group interventions, so we were, of course, curious to see the results,” Meints told us. “And our study now shows for the first time that four weeks of twice-weekly (20 minute) dog-assisted interventions can indeed lead to lower stress in children with and without special educational needs over a typical school term.”
Meintz believes that as dog interventions contributed to lower stress over the school term, both – reduction of stressors and interventions - could go hand in hand to make school a less stressful space for children and adolescents.
“It is important to employ only safe and strictly dog-welfare-oriented interventions,” Meints told us. “Also, we will need to carry out more research now find out more about factors like role of touch, ideal frequency and duration of interventions, etc. – we will be busy for quite some time I imagine.”
Meints wants to make it clear that it is very important to highlight that only strictly dog-welfare oriented and safety-guided dog-assisted interventions should be employed.
“Dogs are our respected partners in this work (in this type of research as well as in dog-assisted interventions in practice) and it needs to be carried out under strictest dog welfare and human safety guidelines employing best practice guidelines, e.g. using the Lincoln Education Assistance with Dogs risk assessment tool or similar tools.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com