Summary: A new study reports that dog-assisted interventions lower cortisol levels and overall stress in young children.
Dog-assisted interventions can lead to significantly lower stress in children both with and without special needs, according to a new study using salivary cortisol levels published this week in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Kerstin Meints of University of Lincoln, UK, and colleagues.
Prolonged exposure to stressors can cause adverse effects on learning, behavior, health and well-being in children over their lifespan. Several approaches to alleviating stress have been explored in schools including yoga, mindfulness, meditation, physical activity, teaching style interventions and animal-assisted interventions.
In the new study, the researchers tracked levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of 105 eight- to nine-year-old children in four mainstream schools in the UK as well as 44 similarly aged children from seven special education needs schools in the UK.
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 meditation group involved a 20-minute relaxation session. Sessions were carried out twice a week for four weeks.
Dog interventions lead to significantly lower cortisol levels in children in both mainstream and special needs schools. In mainstream schools, children in the control and relaxation groups had increases in mean salivary cortisol over the course of the school term.
However, children who participated in either group or individual sessions with dogs had no statistically significant increase in cortisol. In addition, their cortisol levels were, on average, lower immediately after each dog session.
For children with special educational needs, similar patterns were seen, with decreases in cortisol after dog group interventions.
The authors conclude that dog interventions can successfully attenuate stress levels in school children but point out that additional research into the ideal amounts of time and contact with dogs for optimal effect is needed.
The authors add: “Dog-assisted interventions can lead to lower stress levels in school children with and without special educational needs.”
Can dogs reduce stress levels in school children? effects of dog-assisted interventions on salivary cortisol in children with and without special educational needs using randomized controlled trials
Prolonged or excessive stress negatively affects learning, behavior and health across the lifespan. To alleviate adverse effects of stress in school children, stressors should be reduced, and support and effective interventions provided.
Animal-assisted interventions (AAI) have shown beneficial effects on health and wellbeing, however, robust knowledge on stress mediation in children is lacking. Despite this, AAIs are increasingly employed in settings world-wide, including schools, to reduce stress and support learning and wellbeing.
This study is the first randomized controlled trial to investigate dog-assisted interventions as a mediator of stress in school children with and without special educational needs (SEN) over the school term.
Interventions were carried out individually and in small groups twice a week for 20 minutes over the course of 4 weeks. We compared physiological changes in salivary cortisol in a dog intervention group with a relaxation intervention group and a no treatment control group.
We compared cortisol level means before and after the 4 weeks of interventions in all children as well as acute cortisol in mainstream school children.
Dog interventions lead to significantly lower stress in children with and without special educational needs compared to their peers in relaxation or no treatment control groups. In neurotypical children, those in the dog interventions showed no baseline stress level increases over the school term.
In addition, acute cortisol levels evidenced significant stress reduction following the interventions. In contrast, the no treatment control group showed significant rises in baseline cortisol levels from beginning to end of school term. Increases also occurred in the relaxation intervention group.
Children with SEN showed significantly decreased cortisol levels after dog group interventions.
No changes occurred in the relaxation or no treatment control groups.
These findings provide crucial evidence that dog interventions can successfully attenuate stress levels in school children with important implications for AAI implementation, learning and wellbeing.
About this stress research news
Original Research: Open access.
“Can dogs reduce stress levels in school children? effects of dog-assisted interventions on salivary cortisol in children with and without special educational needs using randomized controlled trials” by Kerstin Meints et al. PLOS ONE