Professor of the Practice of Law University of Denver Sturm College of Law

Dogs & Cortisol

Dogs, again?  I admit that my dogs are my most significant mental health intervention!

The pandemic has been very challenging for K-12 school students, and their mental health declines have been significant.  Prolonged stress, including academic stress, has a negative impact on learning, behavior, and health across a person’s lifespan.  A new study shows that interactions with therapy dogs lowered the stress hormone cortisol in children ages 8 and 9, in both mainstream and special education needs schools in the UK. 

Student participants, 105 from mainstream schools and 44 from special education needs (SEN) schools, were divided into 3 groups.  Baseline cortisol levels were collected, and SEN students had higher baseline stress hormone levels. 

Twice per week for 4 weeks, one group spent 20 minutes with a therapy dog, one group received a relaxation-based meditation intervention, and the control group received no interventions.  Researchers compared the stress hormone cortisol levels in the saliva of the children in each group. 

The dog interaction intervention led to significantly lower stress hormone levels in both mainstream and SEN students, as compared to their peers in the relaxation and control groups. 

In the neurotypical students, there was a significant drop in cortisol right after the dog interaction intervention, plus they experienced no increased stress hormones throughout the 6-week school term.  Children in the mainstream relaxation and control groups showed increases in stress hormones over the course of the term, with the control group increases being the highest.  This was a rolling study, meaning that data was collected during different parts of the entire school year.  The results indicate that mainstream students experience an increase in stress throughout a school year, highlighting the need for effective interventions.

Children with SEN showed an increase in cortisol after both the dog and relaxation interventions, if they participated in individual interventions.  But SEN children who participated in group-mediated dog interventions experienced a significant decrease in cortisol levels.  These results indicate that small group dog-assisted interventions can help reduce stress in SEN children, who suffer from heightened baseline stress as compared to mainstream students.

Takeaway:  This research indicates:

  • Student stress increases throughout the academic year;
  • Student stressors should be reduced, and support and effective interventions should be provided, to alleviate the negative impacts of stress;
  • Therapy dog interventions lower stress hormones in mainstream students; and
  • Therapy dog interventions, conducted in small groups, lower stress hormones SEN students.

Well-being is a journey, not a quick fix

Source Kerstin Meints, et al., Can Dogs Reduce Stress Levels in School Children? Effects of Dog-Assisted Interventions on Salivary Cortisol in Children with and without Special Educational Needs using Randomized Controlled Trials, PLOS One, June 15, 2022, Can dogs reduce stress levels in school children? effects of dog-assisted interventions on salivary cortisol in children with and without special educational needs using randomized controlled trials | PLOS ONE.

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