The Calming Power of Dogs
A dog embodies unconditional love—and science suggests that he can wag, lick, and snuggle your child’s stress away. Here’s why this pet is worth the work and how to choose one who’ll be a Zen master.
My 11-year-old daughter, Jo Jo, who has Down syndrome, is inseparable from our yellow Labrador retriever, Wiggins. When she takes a bath, he noses at the water while she scrubs herself, and she tells him what she had for lunch and who she played with at recess. Afterward, Jo Jo combs his fur before letting me comb her own hair. Wiggins then follows Jo Jo into her room, where they snuggle on the bed while I read aloud.
Wiggins likes to roughhouse with my sons, Teddy, 9, and Geoffrey, 7, but he’s attuned to Jo Jo’s needs and very gentle with her. He’ll sit by her feet, staring at her adoringly, and anytime she’s upset, he’s instantly at her side. Whenever I cut her toenails (a routine she hates), he places his whole upper body on her legs in an attempt to soothe her.
Research continues to prove what parents instinctively sense: Family dogs have an innate ability to calm kids down. One study from Yale University, for example, found that children who briefly played with dogs had reduced anxiety, and researchers at Kent State University, in Ohio, found that kids who had to give a five-minute speech were less nervous when their pet was in the room.
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“A dog offers a child unconditional acceptance, companionship, and emotional attachment that he may not get from siblings or friends,” explains Gail Melson, Ph.D., author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children. But research has also found that kids who have a close relationship with their dog are more likely to have a strong bond with their parents and friends too. All that eager tail wagging may inspire kids to share their feelings and affection more freely with the other important people in their life.
Although getting a dog won’t automatically end a child’s bad dreams or meltdowns, a well-trained four-legged friend can have lasting emotional benefits. Consider the science-backed ways that a pup could bring more peace into your home.
Nine-year-old Erin Torpy says she’s found a forever friend in her vizsla, Rosie. “When I have trouble sleeping, I call her and she lies on me and puts her paws around me,” says Erin, of Fairfield, Connecticut. “She always seems to know when I’m sad or worried—she’ll put her head in my lap and start pawing and licking me as if she’s asking if I’m okay, and it makes me happier.”
Just hanging out with a dog increases levels of oxytocin, the feel-good hormone produced in the brain, says Rebecca Rialon Berry, Ph.D., a child psychologist with the Child Study Center at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health. In fact, a Japanese study found that when a dog and a person stare into each other’s eyes, they both experience an increase in oxytocin. “It’s similar to the feedback loop you see between mothers and their babies,” says Dr. Berry. This may also help explain why kids sometimes consider dogs to be more supportive and empathetic than people. “Dogs are not judgmental, like a sibling or a friend can be,” says Dr. Berry. “Kids don’t have to justify why they aren’t doing their homework or worry that the dog doesn’t think they are cool.”
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Having a dog gives kids an opportunity to show and develop their nurturing side, adds Alan Beck, Sc.D., director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, in West Lafayette, Indiana. “It provides very positive reinforcement for them because if they walk their dog or fill his bowl, they’re rewarded with a tail wag or a loving gaze that they interpret as a thank-you.”
Research has found that dogs can impact the body as well as the mind. Kids who grow up with a pet are less moody and anxious, have higher levels of self-esteem, and are likely to be healthier and more physically active. “When it’s just the two of us cuddling inside, Sarge is totally chill,” says 10-year-old Owen Kochans, of Grandville, Michigan, about his Bernese mountain dog. “But whenever we’re outdoors together, we go crazy playing football and chasing each other. It’s so fun having a friend with me 24/7 whenever I’m home.”
Choose a calm companion.
You might fall in love with a picture of a dog on a website, but by meeting the dog, you can make sure he has an easygoing personality, says Ragen McGowan, Ph.D., a research scientist and animal behaviorist at Purina. If you’re picking out a puppy from a shelter or a breeder, observe the littermates in their kennel before they realize you’re there. “You don’t want one who’s so dominant that he’s pushing other puppies out of the way, but you also don’t want the submissive one hiding in the corner,” advises Dr. McGowan. Instead, look for a middle-of-the-road, outgoing pup.
The second test is to watch each puppy as you approach her. “The puppy you’re eying should have her head up and tail wagging as you come toward her,” says Dr. McGowan. Avoid one who runs away or nips or struggles with you if you pick her up. “With a puppy or an adult dog, you should be able to handle her ears, feet, and tail without her squirming away,” she advises.
Most breeders and shelters have a separate area where you can do a meet and greet. “Kids are usually drawn to dogs right away, so the question is how a dog immediately reacts to them,” says Dr. McGowan. You want a dog who seems interested in your kids but who isn’t trying to jump on them or chase them around. “This is a sign that he can handle the chaos of family life without becoming too anxious or excited,” she says.
Bring out the Zen.
The best way to start out on the right paw is to implement a schedule—and stick to it. “Dogs, like kids, thrive on routine,” says Dr. McGowan. This includes plenty of walks and playtime as well as feeding and resting times. It’s especially important to include your kids at feeding time. For example, they could instruct their new friend to sit before putting the bowl down. “This helps the dog see the child as one of her caretakers, which will reinforce their bond,” Dr. McGowan says.
Once your dog feels at home, look for ways to foster a nurturing and emotional relationship. If your child grumbles about getting up for school, take the dog to the bus stop to brighten a dreary day. When you’re dealing with homework, suggest that your kid do it with your dog nearby. One study found that second graders who read books aloud to dogs developed a more positive attitude about reading.
If your dog is yappy or has other behavior that stresses your kids out, teach your children to ignore him. “Kids and dogs often feed off each other’s energy. When one becomes excited, the other usually follows suit. If the dog is barking wildly, the kids may also run around squealing or yelling ‘no’ at the dog as he’s barking,” says Dr. McGowan. “The dog sees this as barking back at him or a fun reaction to barking, which reinforces the behavior and leads to a vicious cycle.” Instead, encourage your kids to reward the dog with treats and praise when he’s calm.
In some cases, it can be challenging to create a bond between children and an older dog who was part of your family before the kids. “A younger dog may want to romp around with kids, while an older dog may want to interact on her own terms,” says Dr. McGowan. This may mean going on family strolls around the neighborhood, with your kids taking turns holding the leash, or giving them responsibility for feeding and brushing. Once your dog sees them as other family members who take care of her, she’ll be more likely to crave interaction.
Over time, any dog can learn advanced stress-reduction skills. Teaching your pup can be as simple as encouraging him to lie down on your child’s legs, acting like a weighted blanket, suggests Ashley O’Hara, president of Compass Key, a personal-service dog-training organization. And don’t underestimate the power of a dog and child sitting side by side, gazing into each other’s eyes. Says Dr. Berry, “At the end of the day, it’s the simple things that matter most, to both kids and dogs.”