An article published this April in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders suggests man’s best friend can significantly reduce stress in the primary caregivers of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
In the study, 38 primary caregivers were given a pet dog, and were compared to 24 caregivers who were not given a dog.
The researchers had parents complete the Parenting Stress Index three times: before getting the dog, after getting the dog, and 25-40 weeks after getting the dog. Parents’ stress levels at each of these times were compared, and the researchers found that on average, the stress of parents who were given a dog was reduced from clinically high levels to normal levels of stress. The stress levels of parents who did not get a pet dog remained the same across all three assessments.
In addition to reductions in parents’ overall stress on the Parenting Stress Index, results showed that the dog owners had lower scores on the Difficult Child subscale, which assesses the child’s overall behaviors (e.g. “My child seems to cry or fuss more often than other children.”). Reductions were also observed on the Parental Distress subscale (e.g. “I often have the feeling that I cannot handle things very well.”).
The authors also pointed out that it’s possible that the dog itself may not be what is causing stress reduction—instead, stress reduction may be happening more indirectly, possibly through increased physical activity, outdoor activity, or spending more time away from the child. However, the researchers believe this is unlikely considering that a 1991 study found that being around a dog reduces stress more than being around a friend.
“It is likely that different factors are important in different contexts and while this may pose challenges for assessing or inferring the mechanism behind the changes noted; from a clinical perspective this may indicate that dogs are particularly useful, since their nature means they may provide a personalised and socially valid intervention with the minimum of clinical effort,” the researchers wrote.
“In this context, voluntary dog acquisition offers a flexible intervention that is economically effective, integrates well into the family, making them potentially very useful for the varied symptoms of ASD, which is highly individual in nature.”
Not only do these findings have important implications for the health of parents of children with ASD, these findings also have important implications for parents of children with ASD, since researchers believe that parental stress levels play a large role in the success of ASD therapy programs.
This study adds to the growing evidence for the benefits of dog ownership. The results of this study are very important for parents of children with ASD, who are prone to experiencing higher stress, anxiety and other negative outcomes like depression and social isolation. The researchers suggest that it is possible a dog acts as another form of social support, and it will be important for future research to compare dog ownership to other programs for parents of children with ASD (e.g support groups).