The Effect of Petting Dogs on Stress Levels

Written at Walt Whitman High School

By Kyle Crichton, Alicia Lamkin



Abstract

Students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland were surveyed on stress levels both before and after petting dogs. Of the students entering the dog event area, 111 students elected to participate in the survey: ranging from grades 9th through 12th and ages 14 through 18. Those who wished to participate were handed a copy of the survey with two pages: one titled “Before Petting the Dogs” and the other titled “After Petting the Dogs”. The “before and after” dog petting surveys asked identical questions regarding stress levels and mood valence. The purpose of this correlational study was to identify if a relationship between stress levels and petting dogs exists. We were able to reject the null hypothesis that there is no correlation between petting dogs and stress levels. We found that after petting the dogs, each participant experienced a self reported decrease in stress levels.


The Effect of Petting Dogs on Stress Levels

Canines have been an integral part of society for many years and have served humans in a multitude of ways. Service dogs, for example, are used to aid visually or hearing impaired people, emotional support dogs are used for children or adults undergoing emotional stress or even Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Colleges and universities across the world are bringing in dogs during exam weeks or during other stressful events to help reduce the anxiety levels of students.

A handful of supportive parents volunteer to bring their dogs for students to visit during their lunch break at Walt Whitman High School located in Bethesda, Maryland. The event is coordinated by a parent-run committee (Stressbusters) who typically host a dog event every two to three months.

This study aimed to find if a correlation exists between petting dogs and stress levels. To do so, members of the Whitman Journal of Psychology stood outside of the dog day event area on February 14th, 2020. The members of the journal offered an anonymous survey for the students walking in to pet the dogs. The survey had two pieces of paper together: one titled “Before Petting the Dogs” and the other “After Petting the Dogs”. The students who wished to participate were handed the survey and instructed to fill out the first page (“Before Petting the Dogs”) before they entered the area with the dogs. After completing the “Before Petting the Dogs” page, the students then entered the area and pet the dogs for the amount of time in which they desired. After petting the dogs the students then filled out the “After Petting Dogs” survey. After completing both sections and petting the dogs, the students then gave back the completed survey to a member of the journal.

Data was collected from 111 students. The students were between the ages of 14-18, and the mean age of the students was 15.7 years old (see Appendix A for age distribution). There were more 9th and 10th graders surveyed than 11th and 12th, and the mean grade level of the students was 10th grade (see Appendix B for grade distribution).

As depression and anxiety are more frequently diagnosed, many institutions around the country desire to alleviate some of their students’ stress. Pew Research conducted a survey of teens aging 13-17 years old in 2019. They found that “academics are at [the] forefront of the pressures teens face”: 61% of teens say they feel a lot of pressure to get good grades (Horowitz & Graf, 2019). Many high schools, like Walt Whitman, are attempting to alleviate some of this stress through designated dog days. Researchers and psychologists have long been intrigued by the possibility of dogs relieving stress.

Through interviews and questionnaires, researchers from the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry aimed to interpret the relationships of pets and adults with mental illnesses. Jennifer Wisdom, Goal Auzeen Saedi, and Carla A. Green classified their findings about benefits of pets in four main themes: empathy and therapy, connections, pets as family, and self-efficacy/self-worth (Wisdom, Saedi, & Green, 2009). In their research, Wisdom, Saedi, and Green found that many people believe that their pets can sense their emotions, providing them comfort and connection. They also found that pet owners experienced “a stronger sense of belonging and integration into mainstream society” (Wisdom, Saedi, & Green, 2009).

In a study about psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions and the possible role of oxytocin, researchers found that human-animal interactions in humans of different ages with different physical and mental states provide many benefits in several different categories (Beetz, Uvnäs-Moberg, Julius & Kotrschal, 2012). Among the psychosocial benefits that Beetz, Uvnäs-Moberg, Julius, Kotrschal found were improvement of social attention, behavior, interpersonal interaction, and mood. Among the psychophysiological benefits found were “reduction of stress-related parameters such as cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure reduction of self-reported fear and anxiety improvement of mental and physical health, especially cardiovascular health” ( Beetz, Uvnäs-Moberg, Julius & Kotrschal). Their findings support the conclusion that human interaction with dogs can improve your current mood and decrease stress. They were also able to study a long list of other positive effects dogs have on humans.

Method

Participants

Students of Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Maryland who were entering the designated dog area were asked by members of Whitman Journal of Psychology if they wished to participate in the survey for the Journal. Of the students walking in, 111 students elected to participate in the survey. The students were between the ages of 14-18, and the mean age of the students was 15.7 years old (see Appendix A for age distribution). There were more 9th and 10th graders surveyed than 11th and 12th, and 10th graders were the most frequently surveyed participants (see Appendix B for grade distribution). Participants were not offered any reward or prize for taking the survey.

Materials

Students who wished to participate in the survey were handed two sheets of paper stapled together. One was titled “Before Petting Dogs” and the other “After Petting Dogs” (Appendix C and Appendix D, respectively).

Procedure

Student members of the Whitman Journal of Psychology stood outside of the designated dog area and asked students who were entering the dog area if they wished to participate in an anonymous survey for the Whitman Journal of Psychology. Students who elected to participate in the survey were handed two sheets of paper stapled together: titled “Before Petting Dogs” and “After Petting Dogs” (Appendix C and Appendix D, respectively). The students were instructed to fill out the “Before Petting Dogs” survey before petting the dogs, and the “After Petting Dogs” survey after petting the dogs. Once they were finished they were instructed to hand the surveys to a member of the journal. The correlational study was conducted through the use of the two surveys which were later statistically analyzed to see if correlation exists between petting dogs and stress levels. The dogs were brought by parent volunteers as part of an event organized by the Stressbusters Committee. This dog day was organized on February, 14th 2020 for the entirety of the school’s lunch hours.

Results

If there was no mean difference of the levels between an individual's initial stress and their stress after seeing the dogs, then the observed mean difference of 1.324 or more would occur less than 0.001% of the time by chance. The difference between before and after petting dogs had a 0.001 probability that the results occurred by chance. Therefore, we reject the null hypothesis. As demonstrated in Appendix E, There is statistical evidence to suggest that there was a decrease in stress levels after seeing the dogs. A negative correlation was found between petting dogs and stress levels.

Discussion

After conducting a correlational study to see if there is a correlation between petting dogs and stress levels, we found that the dogs decreased stress levels in every participant, as found in Appendix E. There was an even distribution of students from all four grades (9-12), as seen in Appendix B. The only unusual trend that we noticed was that over a third of participants were 15 (Appendix A). The sample size was 111 people, and the results found only apply to the people who pet the dogs, it is not generalizable to the entire school population.

The dog day occurred on Valentine's Day, a day that may hold some emotional significance for some of the participants. The students who participated in the survey were only those who wished to see the dogs as we did not randomly sample or select the participants. It is important to note that this correlational study is not generalizable to the entire school population. The participants who wished to see the dogs and participate in the survey likely had some hope that petting the dogs would render some benefit. It is probable that many of the participants predicted that the dogs would decrease their stress or improve their mood which could have played a role in the results that we found. We also had some participants not fully fill out the survey or were outside the age range we were testing. We discarded those few surveys to keep our correlational study accurate. After the study was conducted, we noticed that upset was listed twice from the emotions to choose from. All of these confounding variables could have had an effect on our study.

Although the probability that our results occurred by chance is less than .001, it is important to note that these were manually entered and recorded. There was also a very small number of surveys that were incomplete or invalid (teachers filled them out) that were not included in the data.

This correlational study demonstrated that there is a negative correlation between stress levels and petting dogs. The Dog Day hosted by the Stressbusters Committee yields many benefits to the stress levels and moods of the students walking in to pet the dogs.This study signifies that further research should be conducted on the material. If we were to conduct this study again, we would have more students participate who were randomly sampled participants.

References

Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: The possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234/full

Menasce Horowitz, J., & Graff, N. (2019, February 20). Most U.S. Teens See Anxiety and Depression as a Major Problem Among Their Peers. Retrieved May 16, 2020, from https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2019/02/20/most-u-s-teens-see-anxiety-and-depression-as-a-major-problem-among-their-peers/

Stressbusters [Online forum post]. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www2.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/schools/whitmanhs/counseling/stressbusterss

Wisdom, J. P., Saedi, G. A., & Green, C. A. (2009). Another breed of "service" animals: STARS study findings about pet ownership and recovery from serious mental illness. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 79(3), 430–436. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0016812

Appendices

Appendix A:


Appendix B:


Appendix C:


Appendix D:


Appendix E:

--- title: 'The Effect of Petting Dogs on Stress Levels' authors: [ 'Kyle Crichton', 'Alicia Lamkin' ] school: 'Walt Whitman High School' category: 'study' tags: [ 'Cognitive Psychology', 'Motivation, Emotion, and Personality', 'Social Psychology' ] ---