To find out more about how dogs relieve stress in kids better than meditation, a new British study has just been published in the scientific journal Plos One, which shows that the calming effects of school dogs can actually be measured in the children’s saliva.
In the study, 188 students aged 8-9 participated. 44 of those children were part of special education classes, and the other 144 were from regular classes.
Continue reading this article to learn more about how dogs relieve stress in kids better than meditation.
How Dogs Relieve Stress In Kids Better Than Meditation
In the study, the students were divided into different groups:
- Some children were visited by school dogs twice a week, for 20 minutes each time, over the course of 4 weeks.
- Another group of kids was a part of guided meditation groups for 20 minutes twice a week within the same timeframe.
- The remaining children just spent the schooldays as normally.
Three days in a row, both before and after the meditation and the dog sessions, the researchers measured the amount of cortisol in the children’s saliva.
Cortisol is also known as a stress hormone because your body produces larger amounts of cortisol while under high pressure.
Dogs Work Better Than Meditation
The results show that both the kids from special classes and regular classes could be more relaxed from spending time with dogs than they would from meditation.
- The students from regular classes who meditated and kids that were visited by school dogs had a lower amount of cortisol in their saliva. The kids who stayed in school, as usual, produced an increasing amount of cortisol.
- Kids who were with the dogs, had a larger drop in the amount of cortisol in their bodies, compared with kids who meditated. In the students in special classes, the researchers couldn’t even measure any effect worth noting of meditation.
- Students from special classes only showed a lower amount of cortisol in their saliva after being with a dog, compared to the kids from regular classes that didn’t show any measurable effect after being alone with the dog and its’ trainer.
Dogs Aren’t Miracle Workers
Even if dogs, measured solely in cortisol, look to help calm kids more than meditation in this study, the writer of the study, Kerstin Meins, warns against believing that dogs can miraculously remove anxiety and stress from schools.
“I would highly recommend that schools try to reduce the general level of stress because the study shows that there is an increasing amount of cortisol levels in kids from the start of the school year to the end.”– Kerstin Meints, professor in development psychology at University of Lincoln.
“School dogs can help in reducing the level of stress, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only tool schools should use. There might also be kids with allergies or Cynophobia.“– Kerstin Meints
She also suggests that there should be more research on what kind of stress-reducing tools might work for which students, and how to best use them in schools.
“In our study, the dog intervention worked well for both kids in special classes and kids in regular classes, while meditation worked to a lesser intent for kids in regular classes, and hardly at all for kids in special classes”, she continues.
Dog Visits in School Must Be Planned Ahead
If you chose to get a school dog, it requires quite a lot of planning. The school must have considered every aspect, and it’s far from all dogs that are great at the job, Kerstin Meints continues.
Only safe and thoroughly thought-through interventions that take the well-being of the dog into consideration should be implemented.
“We did security training with the kids before the intervention. As an example, the kids were told that they shouldn’t hug and kiss the dog. And we made sure that all the hired dogs were healthy and proven to be great at working with kids.”– Kerstin Meints
In the study, the responsibility was clearly defined: the children and dogs were under constant supervision from the dog trainers, teachers, and researchers. The teachers were responsible for the kids’ safety, while the dog trainers were responsible for the dogs.
“We were very aware of the dog’s body language. If there were even the slightest indication that the dog didn’t feel safe, or had become stressed, we would’ve stopped. We also had a rule that no dogs were allowed to work more than two hours at a time.”– Kerstin Meints
Kerstin Meints and the other researchers have a lot of experience in working with dogs, and they’ve published guidelines on the safety and well-being of dogs.
She believes that the dogs are not working for, but with the scientists, and that it’s important it’s also fun for them.
A Rare Study
Karen Thodberg, who researches animal welfare, and how you can use animals as a therapeutic tool, has taken a close look at the British study.
“It’s a really interesting study, and it appears to have been thorough and well-planned. There has been published a lot of research looking at school and therapy dogs, but they have all been minor studies that didn’t really give clear answers until now.”– Karen Thodberg, senior researchers at the University of Aarhus.
Even if the British study is quite circumstantial and well made, Karen Thodberg still believes there are a few weaknesses. An example is that it doesn’t show exactly why it is that the children relax more after the sessions with the dogs.
Also, it doesn’t reveal the cause of the lower cortisol amount when the kids from special classes were with the dogs in groups, and not while alone
“We’re always looking to use animals to help people with different challenges, and there is a lot of evidence that something happens when humans interact with animals, but it would be nice to know more specifically what works for who. Just as you would want to know what ingredients in a pill are working for which symptoms.”– Karen Thodberg
Dogs, Robot Seals, and Teddy Bears
Karen Thodberg has also done some experiments using therapy dogs in nursing homes. Her tests show that residents with dementia respond better to dogs than they do to teddy bears or robot seals. But the residents also respond differently to the dogs depending on their mental state, and that might also be the situation for children she says.
In a study done by Karen Thodberg and colleagues, they divided elderly patients with dementia into three groups.
- Group 1 had 12 visits from a dog.
- Group 2 had a robot seal visiting.
- Group 3 had company from a teddy bear.
“The residents who were visited by a dog kept interacting a lot with the dog through all 12 visits. Those who had a robot seal became less and less interested, and those with the teddy bears, that were specifically developed for people with dementia, gave the poorest results.”– Karen Thodberg
The experiment also revealed that some of the residents were obviously more interested in the dogs compared to other residents.
“Those affected the most by dementia spent more time with the dog than they did with us who came to visit with the dogs. This could show that those with the worst conditions looked more for the companion of the dogs than those less affected.”– Karen Thodberg
Not Everybody Responds to Dogs the Same Way
In another study, residents at a nursing home had the option of doing activities with therapy dogs, visits from regular dogs without activities, or spending time with another person who came to visit without any dog.
“Those who aren’t too seriously affected by dementia, responded well on doing activities with the dog, while those with advanced dementia responded better without having to do any activities.”– Karen Thodberg
For the British study, it was both children with or without special needs that saw a calming effect from dogs, but that doesn’t mean that all children should do the same with a dog, it’s all about finding what works best for who.
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