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Our Four-Legged and Furry Emotional Regulators

By: Emily McCarthy


(Intern Emily’s therapy dog Elliott offering support to a patient in the emergency room)

After a long and stressful day of working, full-time graduate student-ing, and attending to life’s never-ending “to-do” lists necessary to keep a household afloat, my family often finds itself in what we affectionately refer to as our “cuddle puddle.” Two humans, a pair of dogs, and a duo of cats intertwined with each other on the couch. Sometimes, my husband and I share the inevitable ups and downs; sometimes, we simply sit in silence and breathe out the weight of the day. Always though, soft dog ears are being caressed, fingers are plunged into plush feline fur, and appreciation and affection are shared across the boundaries of our puddle’s species.

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has shared their home with a beloved pet that their presence in our lives is a positive one and can support our families’ emotional regulation, particularly children. Beyond this lived experience, however, current research and respected institutions, such as Children’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, are demonstrating that growing up with, and even merely interacting with, pets can provide more than just adorable Instagram photo opportunities for our children’s emotional and mental health.


(Intern Emily and her beloved “heart dog” Maserati)

Interacting with animals, including but not limited to one’s own pets, has been shown to help alleviate the symptoms of depression and anxiety that plague many children, especially in our tumultuous post-COVID-19 world. Animals provide a source of non-judgemental companionship, allowing children to express themselves more freely, and studies have shown that interacting with pets can improve children's moods both during the interaction and for hours afterward. This improvement in emotional regulation may allow a child to modulate their big feelings and provide an avenue for improved communication with adults in their lives as well as with their peers.

Steven Feldman of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute found that, compared to children in non-pet-owning households, children with a pet in the home “were 23% less likely to have difficulties with their emotions and social interactions; 30% less likely to engage in antisocial behaviors; 40% less likely to have problems interacting with other children; and 34% more likely to engage in considerate behaviors, such as sharing (Wenden et al., 2021).”

Living with and helping to care for a pet can help parents create a sense of purpose, structure, and responsibility for their child. It can also provide a welcome bridge that may allow a child to form friendships based on their shared love of animals.

Growing up and now well into adulthood, pets, especially horses and dogs, have always been part of my self-care routine. Before my career shift to social work, caring for others’ pets was also part of my professional identity. I believe so strongly in the value of the human-animal bond that I underwent training to certify my own dogs as therapy dogs. Together, we have visited pediatric hospitals, supported children undergoing depositions of traumatic events in the court system, and provided comfort in schools following stressful events.

Understandably, not all households will be able to accommodate the needs of a pet. Despite that, there are other ways your child can experience the emotional regulation benefits of animals. These can include animal-assisted therapy, volunteer opportunities that involve caring for animals, horseback riding lessons, visiting local community farms, or spending time with a peer’s furry family member. Recognizing the tremendous value of support animals for children, many cities and towns are now including “Comfort Dogs” as part of their school systems or police departments, including the police departments of Merrimack, New Hampshire’s “Mack” and Cocoa, Florida’s “Copper.”

The “cuddle puddle” that my own family ends our day with is not by happenstance. Petting an animal has been shown to reduce the stress hormone known as cortisol while simultaneously increasing the “love hormone” called oxytocin. The emotional and sensory experience of interacting with our pets is both a joyful addition to our families and a valuable tool in our emotional regulation and self-care toolkit.

References

Wenden, E. J., Lester, L., Zubrick, S. R., Ng, M., & Christian, H. E. (2021). The relationship between dog ownership, dog play, family dog walking, and pre-schooler social-emotional development: findings from the PLAYCE observational study. Pediatric research, 89(4), 1013–1019. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-020-1007-2


 

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