2017-05-24 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

Dogs offer comfort and support to children who must testify in court, seriously ill kids in hospitals, reluctant young readers in library programs and children who have witnessed unspeakable horror such as the Sandy Hook School massacre.

Timmy, a three-legged Lhasa Apso and certified therapy dog, alumnus of both Babylon Shelter and Last Hope, has served as a “stress buster” dog for college students about to take their final exams at Hofstra, Post and NY Tech. He listens to struggling students read, and helps out in classes of special needs students. One non-verbal youngster learned to sign the word “dog” because she was so fond of Timmy.

“Jasmine,” my Afghan Hound goddaughter participates in several Tail Waggin’ Tutor programs in NJ. She gazes at the kids while they read to her. If a child professes not to be able to read, Jasmine’s mom tells them to show her the pictures and tell the story. Jasmine’s welcoming demeanor and love of children encourages the student to articulate the whole book. Is there science to back up the canine calming effect?


“Timmy” as a “stress-buster” dog before Hofstra finals. “Timmy” as a “stress-buster” dog before Hofstra finals. A university press release reports findings in an experiment concerning the biology behind canine comfort. The dogs studied were personal pets rather than certified therapy dogs. Pet dogs also provide valuable social support for kids when they’re stressed, according to a study by researchers from the University of Florida, among the first to document stress-buffering effects of pets for children.

Darlene Kertes and colleagues tested the commonly held belief that pet dogs provide social support for kids using a randomized controlled study -- the gold standard in research.

“Many people think pet dogs are great for kids but scientists aren’t sure if that’s true or how it happens,” Kertes said. She reasoned one way this might occur is by helping children cope with stress. “How we learn to deal with stress as children has lifelong consequences for how we cope with stress as adults.”

For their study, recently published in the journal Social Development, the researchers recruited approximately 100 pet-owning families, who came to their university laboratory with their dogs. The children in the study were between seven and 12 years old.

To tap children’s stress, the children completed a public speaking task and mental arithmetic task. Both are known to evoke feelings of stress and raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol. The hormone was measured as an indicator of real-life pressures. Public speaking and math assignments would simulate a form of stress in children’s lives. The children were randomly assigned to experience the stressor with their dog present for social support, with their parent present or with no social support.

“Our research shows that having a pet dog present when a child is undergoing a stressful experience lowers how much children feel stressed out,” Kertes said. “Children who had their pet dog with them reported feeling less stressed compared to having a parent for social support or having no social support.”

Samples of saliva were collected before and after the stressor to check children’s cortisol levels, a biological marker of the body’s stress response. Results showed that for kids who underwent the stressful experience with their pet dogs, children’s cortisol levels varied depending on the nature of the interaction of children and their pets.

“Children who actively solicited their dogs to come and be pet or stroked had lower cortisol levels compared to children who engaged their dogs less,” said Kertes, an assistant professor in the psychology department of UF’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “When dogs hovered around or approached children on their own, however, children’s cortisol tended to be higher.”

“Middle childhood is a time when children’s social support figures are expanding beyond their parents, but their emotional and biological capacities to deal with stress are still maturing,” Kertes explained. “Because we know that learning to deal with stress in childhood has lifelong consequences for emotional health and wellbeing, we need to better understand what works to buffer those stress responses early in life.” Pet dogs, as well as trained therapy dogs, provide valuable social support for kids when they’re stressed, according to this study by researchers from the University of Florida.

Pets at Babylon Animal Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: Little “Pippa” is being featured to show how compassionate the staff is when a distressed dog arrives at the shelter. Last week a man brought in this tiny Poodle, all dirty and matted. He said he found her in his Wyandanch yard. Scanning the microchip didn’t reveal an owner but did give her birthday. The poor waif will be 16 years old in November. How was she able to survive if she were truly a stray? She could barely walk or relieve herself because of the mats trapping her elderly frame.

The staff got right to work making her comfortable.

Dr. Deborah Lupo-Lyons, vet at the shelter, gently shaved her down to the skin. She examined her. Then the senior Poodle got a bath. “Pippa” is all bones and has about three teeth including one big, bottom canine left in her mouth.

The staff put a pretty blue sweater on “Pippa” and wrapped her in a snuggly, blanket before putting her in a crate. Then they fed her canned food. “Pippa” dove in and took huge wads of food, chomping down like she is enjoying a delicious buffet. Last I heard, Dr. Lyons was making arrangements for a home for “Pippa.”

Meanwhile “Andrew” 7-173 and his brother “Greyson” 7-172 lost their home because their former owner is ill. “Andrew” is quite affectionate and head-butts your hand gently while you are petting him.

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