Dogs can heal for children
CNA/THE NEW YORK TIMES — An unexpected benefit of adopting Annie, my family’s 40-pound floppy-eared mutt, is the calming effect she had on my children.
My sons often come home from a long, packed day of school and flop onto the floor next to Annie’s bed and lie quietly while she licks her fingers and cheeks. Or they rub their tummy and take a break before turning to dinner and homework and anything else that needs to happen before bed.
Annie is a real rascal with endless energy, but her mere presence in our home calms my kids in a way I didn’t see coming when we brought them home over a year ago.
A recently published study sheds light on this powerful bond between children and dogs. It found that twice-weekly sessions with a dog and its handler significantly reduced children’s cortisol levels — the body’s stress hormone — which they measured using saliva samples. The intervention appeared to be more effective than guided relaxation sessions.
“Our study shows for the first time that dog-assisted interventions can actually result in reduced distress for children with and without special educational needs over a typical school year,” says Prof. Dr Lincoln in England and one of the study’s researchers.
Her team’s randomised, controlled trial, published in the journal PLOS ONE, involved 149 neurotypical and non-neurotypical eight- and nine-year-olds in the UK, who were divided into three groups.
In one group, the children spent 20 minutes twice a week with a trained dog and its handler for a month.
They would pet the dog for a few minutes when the dog and children were ready, ask a few questions, and play.
In another group, during the same period without dogs, children worked on relaxation exercises by doing things like wiggling their fingers and toes before lying down on yoga mats to listen to a guided meditation.
A third group served as controls.
The researchers took saliva samples from all the children to measure their cortisol levels before and after the four-week study, and also measured the neurotypical children’s cortisol levels before and after each session.
Overall, they found that children in the dog intervention group had lower cortisol levels than their peers in the relaxation and control groups.
“As a clinical caregiver working full-time with a facility dog, I’m not surprised that this study is yielding such positive results,” said Paws and Play dog program coordinator at Mount Sinai Kravis Children’s Hospital in New York City, Ali Spikestein, who at was not involved in the new study.
Thoroughly acquainted with the therapeutic potential of dogs, Spikestein works with her hospital’s three Goldendoodles – Professor, Amos and Moby – to sit with and sometimes cuddle with children who are in significant pain or who are struggling to just get in being in a hospital environment.
But she said it was “exciting and promising” to see a new study looking specifically at the potential role dogs could play in calming down otherwise healthy children in schools.
In fact, researchers and mental health professionals have said there is a real need for more research into how animal-assisted interventions of all kinds can help children.
dr Meints also hopes for more controlled studies, as well as longer-term studies that can answer questions about how often children should attend dog-assisted therapy sessions and how long the sessions should last.
There are also big questions about how important it is for children to be able to touch the dog during sessions, or whether just being near the animal is enough for them, she said, and whether there is a group or individual therapy is best.
As tempting as it might be for parents like me to extrapolate, there’s a huge difference between dog therapy and the kinds of unpredictable interactions kids and pets have when they’re just at home together. (Although research has shown that owning dogs can be good for children’s psychological development).
“There’s a difference between a trained animal and a pet,” said Dr. Arun Handa, attending psychiatrist in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“Nevertheless, it’s not unreasonable that pets can offer some sort of comfort and support.”
Regardless of the environment, children need to be taught how to be around dogs, and the American Academy of Pediatrics offers parents guidance on choosing and living with a family pet.
The children in the new study were reminded before sessions not to kiss, hug, or bully their therapy dogs in any way, and were closely monitored by adults at all times.
The team looked for signs that the dogs were unhappy, such as: licking their noses, moving their bodies or heads, or repetitive yawning, and ended any sessions where the dogs appeared tired or unwilling to participate.
I can attest that in my own home this type of training is ongoing.
Sometimes I have to remind my sons to give Annie her space; other times, she’s the one who needs to be reminded. But more often than not, my kids and dog seem to share an emotional understanding that I can’t help but feel is good for them.
“Animals provide that unconditional love,” said Dr. Handa, “and come from a place of non-judgmental support.”