The benefits of owning pets and spending time with animals are increasingly well-documented and established within psychology research. Pets have a range of beneficial effects on the mental health of their owners. Adults who own pets report experiencing more social interactions, reduced stress, and an overall improved quality of life. For children, pets are often thought of as a positive influence, but the specific benefits are just beginning to be identified by researchers.
A recent study at the University Florida was among the first to demonstrate the positive impact pets can have on children in a randomized controlled trial. The researchers recruited 100 dog-owning children between the ages of 7-12. The children were asked to perform stress-inducing tasks – including public speaking and mental arithmetic – in the lab. Some children had a parent present, some had their dog present, and some had neither present. Results showed that children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed about doing the task compared to the children who had their parent present or those who had neither their dog nor their parent present.
These results suggest that pet dogs can be a strong source of support for children in stressful situations. Being near their pets can make children feel safer and less anxious. For children who struggle more significantly with anxiety, interactions with pets and animals could play a role in a larger treatment plan. Finding different ways to manage stress in childhood can help children develop into resilient adults with a wide range of coping techniques.