Can Dogs Increase Children's Attention and Concentration Performance? A Randomised Controlled Trial

Karin Hediger1,2,3 & Dennis C. Turner3,4

1 Human and Animal Health Unit, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Socinstrasse 57, 4002 Basel, Switzerland
2 University of Basel, Petersplatz 1, 4001 Basel, Switzerland
3 IEMT Switzerland, Institute for interdisciplinary research on the human-animal relationship, c/o Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute, Socinstrasse 57, 4002 Basel, Switzerland
4 Institute for applied Ethology and Animal Psychology (I.E.A.P.), Seestrasse 254, 8810 Horgen, Switzerland

Many practitioners report that the presence of an animal, or interaction with an animal, increases the attention and concentration of children, elderly persons or patients. Previous studies support this impression via indirect variables, but direct effects on children's attention performance have not yet been measured. We therefore designed a study that used neuropsychological concentration tasks to test the effect of the presence of dogs, and contact with dogs, on children's performance. In a randomised, controlled crossover trial, 24 children between 10-14 years completed a memory task and three neuropsychological attention tests. We also used passive infrared hemoencephalography (PIR HEG) to assess a biological correlate of attention. The children interacted with either a trained therapy dog or the robotic dog AIBO for 15 minutes before they completed the tests. We found that the learning effect in the memory test, as well as in the neuropsychological attention test "Cancellation Screen", was significantly enhanced (p= 0.021) when children were in the presence of, or interacted with the dog. No such effect was found in the two attention tests, "Continuous Performance Test" and "Divided Attention Bimodal". In the presence of the robotic dog, attention processes measured in frontal brain activity, via PIR HEG, were significantly reduced over time during the test "Divided Attention Bimodal" (p < .001). These processes did not decrease in the presence of the real dog. We found no such difference during the two other attention tests. Moreover, the PIR HEG signal was significantly higher in general in all three attention tests in the presence of the dog. We conclude that interacting with a dog, or the presence of a dog, may increase children's attention and concentration performance.

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Keywords: attention, children, concentration, dog, human-animal interaction
Posted in 2014, Volume 2, No. 2