Dogs can heal children

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Catherine PEARSON

CNA/THE NEW YORK TIMES – An unexpected benefit of adopting Annie, the 40-pound lop-eared pooch in my family, is the calming effect she has had on my children.

My sons often come home from a long, busy day at school and collapse on the floor next to Annie’s bed, lying quietly while she licks her fingers and cheeks. Or they’ll rub his tummy, taking a beating before moving on to dinner and homework and whatever else needs to happen before bed.

Annie is a real naughty girl with endless energy, but her mere presence in our house calms my children down in a way I didn’t see coming when we brought her home over a year ago. .

A recently published study sheds light on this powerful child-dog connection. He found that twice-weekly sessions with a dog and handler significantly reduced children’s levels of cortisol – the body’s stress hormone – which they measured using saliva samples. The intervention was found to be more effective than guided relaxation sessions.

“Our study shows, for the first time, that dog-assisted interventions can indeed reduce stress in children, with and without special educational needs, during a typical school period,” said Professor Dr Kerstin. Meints in Developmental Psychology at the University of Lincoln in England, and one of the study’s researchers.

His team’s randomized controlled trial, published in the journal PLOS ONE, included 149 neurotypical and non-neurotypical eight- and nine-year-old children in Britain, who were split into three groups.

In one group, children spent 20 minutes twice a week, for a month, with a trained dog and its handler.

They would pet the dog for a few minutes if the dog and the kids were ready, ask questions and play.

In another group, children worked on relaxation exercises for the same period without any dogs, doing things like wiggling their fingers and toes before lying on yoga mats to listen to a guided meditation.

A third group served as a control.

The researchers took saliva samples from all the children to measure their cortisol levels before and after the four-week trial, 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 manager who works full-time with a facility dog, I’m not surprised to see such positive results coming out of this study,” said the Paws and Play dog ​​program coordinator at Mount Sinai. Kravis Children’s Hospital in New York. Ali Spikestein, who was not involved in the new study.

Spikestein is well aware of the therapeutic potential of dogs, working with his hospital’s three goldendoodles — Professor, Amos and Moby — to sit and sometimes cuddle children who are in significant pain or struggling to simply be in a hospital setting.

But she said it was “exciting and promising” to see a new study looking specifically at the potential role dogs could play in calming otherwise healthy children in schools.

Indeed, 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 to see more controlled trials as well as longer-term studies that can answer questions about how often children should attend dog-assisted therapy sessions and for how long.

There are also big questions about how important it is for children to be able to touch the dog during sessions, or whether it’s enough just for them to be in the presence of the animal, she said, and whether whether group or individual therapy is better.

As tempting as it may be for parents like me to extrapolate, there’s a big difference between dog therapy and the kinds of unpredictable interactions kids and pets have when they’re just hanging out at home together. (Although research has shown that owning a dog can be good for the psychological development of children).

“There’s a difference between a trained animal and a pet,” said attending psychiatrist for the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Dr. Arun Handa.

“That being said, it’s not unreasonable that pets can provide some kind of comfort and support.”

Regardless of the setting, children need to learn how to interact with dogs, and the American Academy of Pediatrics offers parents advice on choosing and living with a pet.

The children in the new study were reminded before the sessions not to kiss, hug or hug their therapy dogs in any way, and were always closely supervised by adults.

The team looked for signs that the dogs were upset, such as licking their noses, moving their bodies or heads away, or yawning repeatedly, and ended any sessions in which the dogs appeared tired or as if no longer wanted to participate.

I can attest that at home, this kind of training is underway.

Sometimes I have to remind my sons to give Annie her space; other times it is she who needs to be reminded. But more often than not, my children and my dog ​​seem to share an emotional understanding that I can’t help but feel is good for them.

“Animals provide this unconditional love,” Dr. Handa said, “and come from a place of non-judgmental support.”

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