Presence of a dog on executive functioning and stress in children with emotional disorders

Joanna Leigh Becker, Fordham University


Therapy dogs are increasingly used in interventions for youth with emotional disorders. Theories of human-animal interactions suggest that dogs offer social support, which favorably influences psychological functioning and reduces physiological stress. Such theories are based largely on anecdotal reports due to a lack of empirical research. This study expanded upon the literature by comparing the effects of the presence of a dog versus a toy dog on executive functioning (EF) and physiological indicators of stress (heart rate and blood pressure) in 38 youth with emotional disorders (ages 7–15). Compared to the toy-dog condition, participants in the real-dog condition performed significantly better on executive tasks that required set shifting and inhibition, and completed set-shifting and sustained attention tasks more quickly. Analyses of age-related effects on EF showed that adolescents earned significantly higher scores than children on set-shifting and sustained attention tasks. Adolescents also completed attention and inhibition tasks more quickly than children. Expected age-related differences in working memory or inhibitory control were not found. Contrary to previous research, the presence of a dog did not have a significant effect on physiological stress. However, it is likely that low participation rates in physiological tests impacted results. The data suggest that the presence of a dog helps youth with emotional disorders engage in EF processes, an important finding given that EF plays an integral role in academic and social functioning.

Subject Area

Behavioral psychology|Educational psychology

Recommended Citation

Becker, Joanna Leigh, "Presence of a dog on executive functioning and stress in children with emotional disorders" (2014). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3629239.