For the study, researchers invited 100 pet-owning families with kids between ages 7 and 12 to bring their dogs to the research lab. Then they had the kids complete both a public speaking task and some mental math—both of which are known to raise the stress hormone cortisol and simulate real-life stress in children's lives.
The researchers found that having a pet dog present while undergoing the public speaking and math experiences lowered the kids' stress levels—even more so than having a parent around did! But the way the kids interacted with their dogs also seemed to matter.
"Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less," explained Darlene Kertes, an assistant professor in University of Florida's psychology department. "When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children's cortisol tended to be higher."
These findings are important, Kertes said, because how we learn to deal with stress as children determines how we cope with stress as adults.
"Middle childhood is a time when children's social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing," she explained. "Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and well-being, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life."