Having a pet dog around the house may markedly lower stress and offer other benefits for families of children on the spectrum, researchers say.

In a study looking at the experiences of families with a child with autism who obtained a dog, researchers found declining stress levels and fewer dysfunctional interactions between parent and child in the two-and-a-half years after acquiring their furry friend.

“While there‭ ‬is‭ ‬growing‭ ‬evidence that animal-assisted‭ ‬therapy‭ ‬can aid in the‭ ‬treatment‭ ‬of‭ children with ‬autism‭ ‬spectrum‭ ‬disorders, this study is one of the first to examine how‭ ‬pet‭ ‬dog‭ ‬ownership‭ ‬can also improve‭ ‬the‭ ‬lives‭ ‬of‭ ‬those‭ ‬more widely affected‭ ‬by‭ ‬autism,” said Daniel Mills, of the University of Lincoln in England who led the study. “Our results show that owning a pet dog (rather than a specifically trained assistance dog) can considerably improve the function of the whole family unit.”

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For the study, researchers looked at 22 families of kids with autism who got a dog and 15 similar families without the pets.

After more than two years, parents in both groups displayed less stress, but the impact was more pronounced in dog-owning families with 20 percent of such parents improving from having “clinically high” stress to normal levels, according to findings published recently in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.

What’s more, a reduction in dysfunctional interactions between parents and their kids was only noted among the pet owners, the study found.

“Parents of children with autism can experience increased anxiety and stress, and now we have strong scientific evidence to show that pets can have positive effects on these quality-of-life issues,” said Steven Feldman, executive director of the Washington-based Human Animal Bond Research Initiative Foundation, which helped fund the research. “Families with an autistic child should consider pet ownership as a way to improve family harmony.”

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