New research from the University of Lincoln has found that dog-assisted interventions can lead to significantly lower stress levels in children both with and without special needs.
The findings were published this week in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Kerstin Meints, Professor in Developmental Psychology at the University of Lincoln, and colleagues.
The study compared cortisol levels in primary school children who participated in dog-assisted intervention sessions, relaxation sessions, or no intervention.
Prolonged exposure to stressors can cause adverse effects on learning, behaviour, health and wellbeing 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.
Researchers measured levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of 105 8- to 9-year-old children in four mainstream schools as well as 44 similarly aged children from seven 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 meditation group involved a 20-minute relaxation session. Sessions were carried out twice a week for four weeks. The control group went to school as normal.
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. In contrast, children who participated in either group or individual sessions with dogs had no statistically significant increase in stress levels. In addition, their cortisol levels were, on average, lower immediately after a single 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.