Glucocorticoid response to naturalistic interactions between children and dogs

Gitanjali E. Gnanadesikan, Elizabeth Carranza, Katherine M. King, Abigail C. Flyer, Gianna Ossello, Paige G. Smith, Netzin G. Steklis, H. Dieter Steklis, Jessica J. Connelly, Melissa Barnett, Nancy Gee, Stacey Tecot, Evan L. MacLean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although research has shown that pets appear to provide certain types of social support to children, little is known about the physiological bases of these effects, especially in naturalistic contexts. In this study, we investigated the effect of free-form interactions between children (ages 8–10 years) and dogs on salivary cortisol concentrations in both species. We further investigated the role of the child-dog relationship by comparing interactions with the child's pet dog to interactions with an unfamiliar dog or a nonsocial control condition, and modeled associations between survey measures of the human-animal bond and children's physiological responses. In both children and dogs, salivary cortisol decreased from pre- to post-interaction; the effect was strongest for children interacting with an unfamiliar dog (compared to their pet dog) and for the pet dogs (compared to the unfamiliar dog). We found minimal evidence for associations between cortisol output and behaviors coded from video, but children scoring higher on survey measures of the human-animal bond exhibited the greatest reductions in cortisol when interacting with dogs. Self-reported loneliness was not related to cortisol or the human-animal bond, but measures of both loneliness and the human-animal bond were higher among children who participated after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, relative to those who participated before the pandemic. This study builds on previous work that investigated potential stress-buffering effects of human-animal interaction during explicit stressors and demonstrates important physiological correlates of naturalistic interactions between children and dogs, similar to those that occur in daily life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number105523
JournalHormones and Behavior
StatePublished - May 2024


  • Child
  • Cortisol
  • Dog
  • Human-animal bond
  • Human-animal interaction
  • Loneliness
  • Social support
  • Stress

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Endocrinology
  • Endocrine and Autonomic Systems
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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