Kids, Dogs and Mental Health

Do dogs prevent anxiety?
By Karen B. London PhD, December 2015, Updated July 2016

Kids who are asking their parents for a puppy this season have a convincing new argument to try. A recent study ("Pet Dogs and Children’s Health: Opportunities for Chronic Disease Prevention?”) reports that kids who live with a dog are less likely to be anxious than their peers living in homes without dogs. Researchers evaluated 643 children for signs of anxiety. They found that only 12 percent of kids who have dogs met the clinical criteria that would prompt health care professionals to further screen for anxiety. This was in contrast to 21 percent of kids without dogs who met those criteria.

Despite the way this study has been reported in the media, the authors of this study do not claim that there is a causal relationship between having a dog and lower levels of anxiety in children. Sure, if you are reading this, you are all but certainly a dog lover and inclined to see the benefits of being with dogs. There’s plenty of scientific evidence to back you up if this where you stand. Being with dogs can lower levels of cortisol (which is associated with stress), decrease blood pressure and heart rate, and increase levels of oxytocin (which is associated with social bonding.)

The study highlights the correlation between living with a dog and a lower likelihood of anxiety in children, but makes no claims about why the association exists. It is entirely possible, for example, that people who are less anxious by nature are more likely to have dogs, and their children just happen to share a lower likelihood of anxiety. Or perhaps people with children tend to get dogs only when their lives are not too stressful, which means that the people with and without dogs vary in their anxiety levels for reasons that are not related to having dogs.

It seems highly possible that living with a dog lowers the risk of anxiety in children, perhaps by alleviating loneliness and separation anxiety or by facilitating social interactions. Still, it’s important to understand that the links found in this study do not show the presence of the dog to be the key factor.

While I would not recommend that anyone rush out to acquire a dog for the sole purpose of lowering their children’s chances of developing anxiety, kids might try to convince you to do exactly that. They may have a point.

photo by Chris Wejr/Flickr

Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She has authored five books on canine training and behavior.