The purpose of the current study was to test whether the familiarity of a dog affects a person’s stress and task performance on a stressful task. Pets can improve people’s health mentally, physically, and socially. Dogs can lower people’s stress. This stress-reduction effect has been explained by the stress-buffering hypothesis. Dogs’ stress reducing capabilities have been applied with dog therapy in schools, hospitals, and with the elderly. In this study, dog-owning students performed mental arithmetic as a stressful task, with or without a dog present, during which their heart rate was measured as a stress indicator. The independent variables were the familiarity of the dog (familiar dog, unfamiliar dog, or no dog (control)) and the identity of the unfamiliar dog (Cash or Lucy). Dependent variables included heart rate reactivity (a measure of stress) and task performance (math score and number of subtractions completed). It was predicted that a familiar dog would reduce a person’s stress and improve their task performance more than an unfamiliar dog or no dog. Overall, the predictions were not supported. Familiar dogs did not reduce people’s stress more than unfamiliar dogs or no dogs. Additionally, familiar dogs did not significantly enhance task performance over unfamiliar dogs or no dogs. The potential stress-reduction effect of dogs may be specific to the home environment, and specific groups of people. This study suggests that dog therapy may only be effective in certain conditions, or may not be effective at all.
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