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How Spending Time With Dogs Can Benefit the Brain

Recent research found that playing with a dog boosted both relaxation and concentration.

  • Participants recorded lower levels of fatigue and stress after different types of interactions with a dog. 

  • It is imperative that we learn more about what emotional and cognitive effects dogs can have, and why.

Many of us have dogs whom we consider to be cherished members of our family. In fact, pet ownership increased during the pandemic and shows no meaningful signs of slowing down. Dogs in particular are often said to be mood-boosters—companions that show unconditional love, are loyal and affectionate, and provide opportunities for exercise and play.

The medical field has taken an interest as well and seems to embrace the notion that time with a dog can potentially decrease stress and boost mood. No doubt this is why dogs have been enlisted to play therapeutic roles in high-stress environments, like schools, correctional facilities, and health care settings.

Up until now, much of the research that seeks to explore the effect of animals' presence on humans has focused on general characteristics. In other words, the effects that were looked at represented overall benefits to mood or emotion that come from spending general time with a pet or canine companion, no matter what exactly people were doing during that time with the pet. Now, however, there is exciting new research that delineates among different types of activities that people engage in with dogs, to see if certain types of time spent are better, or have different effects, than others.

In this recent study, by Yu, Woo, Han, and Park and published in PLOS ONE,eight different types of interactions were categorized, and 30 adult participants with an average age of about 28 performed those activities with a well-trained dog. The eight types of activities were meeting the dog, playing with the dog, feeding the dog, massaging the dog, grooming the dog, taking photos of the dog, hugging the dog, and walking the dog. The participants were scanned via EEG while they engaged in these interactions with the dog for three straight minutes, and were then asked to rate their mood afterward.

It was found that while participants played with and walked the dog, alpha-band oscillations in the brain increased in strength, which suggests a relaxed and wakeful state among participants. When participants were massaging, grooming, or playing with the dog, beta-band oscillation strength increased, which was more indicative of heightened concentration, though without stress.

This suggests that when playing with the dog, both relaxation and concentration were boosted. The mood assessment showed that the participants recorded significantly lower levels of fatigue, depression, and stress after allof the different types of interactions with the dog.

With not only popular culture embracing time with dogs as potentially playing a role in the fight against ever-increasing stress, anxiety, and depression, but also the medical, psychiatric, and gerontology fields taking dogs seriously for their potential role in well-being, it is imperative that we learn more about what emotional and cognitive effects dogs can have, and why. This research helps start the conversation about what types of activities might be more correlated with what types of brain effects, and it could potentially help target different types of interventions for people suffering from different types of psychological woes.

It's important to note, of course, that this study was relatively small. Also, people volunteering to be in a study that involves spending time with dogs might represent something of a skewed sample, as they themselves—if they seek out time with dogs more frequently or with more enthusiasm than the average person—might be prone to receiving more of the benefit of time with dogs, which could be a potential confound.

Perhaps further research can elucidate whether these effects still stand across a more general and diverse population, including people with different levels of experience with animals and different levels of liking dogs. Nonetheless, this study provides a positive sign that the widespread beliefs of the potential positive psychological effects of our canine companions can indeed be backed up by the data.

Courtesy of author Andrea Bonior, Ph.D original article published on Psychology Today.

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