Petting dogs makes people more “sociable,” and science just proved it

A person petting a dog

Apparently petting a cat or dog can reduce stress (Picture: Getty)

Petting dogs makes people more sociable, according to science.

Observing, feeling, and touching man’s best friend actually stimulates neurons in the prefrontal cortex — the area of ​​the brain that helps regulate emotional interactions.

While we’ve always known this to be the case, new research has proven the effect is real.

And the results could have implications for animal-assisted clinical therapy.

Dogs help people deal with stress and depression, so elucidating this phenomenon could lead to the development of better treatments.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, found the effect lasts after the dogs are gone — but diminishes when they’re replaced with stuffed animals

Dog English Bulldog Portrait

Dogs help people deal with stress and depression (Credits: Getty Images)

Lead author Rahel Marti from the University of Basel, Switzerland, said: “The present study shows that prefrontal brain activity increases in healthy subjects with increasing interaction proximity to a dog or a stuffed animal, but particularly when in contact with the dog, the activation is stronger.

“This suggests that interactions with a dog may activate more attentional processes and elicit greater emotional arousal than comparable inanimate stimuli.”

In the study, activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex was measured non-invasively in 19 men and women using neuroimaging technology.

Participants wore a skullcap with sensors that shined infrared light into their brains while viewing, leaning with their legs on, or petting a dog.

Each condition was also performed with Leo, a stuffed lion. His fur was also filled with a water bottle to accommodate the dogs’ temperature and weight.
Results showed that prefrontal brain activity was greater when participants interacted with real dogs.

Ms. Marti said, “This difference was greatest in petting, which was the most interactive condition.”

Another important finding was that prefrontal brain activity increased each time humans interacted with the real dog.

This was not observed in consecutive interactions with the stuffed lion, suggesting that the response might be related to familiarity or social bonding.

Ms Marti said the results suggest a relationship with the dog could be a key factor.

Ockham Common, Surrey, England

Research has shown that pets have been a huge benefit to our mental health during the pandemic (Credit: Getty)

She said: “They are clinically relevant for patients with deficits in motivation, attention and socio-emotional functioning.

“The integration of animals in therapeutic interventions could therefore be a promising approach to improve emotional involvement and attention.”

Research has shown that pets have been a huge benefit to our mental health during the pandemic.

A York University survey of nearly 6,000 people found nearly 90 per cent of owners said their animals had helped them cope better emotionally during lockdown.

Ms. Marti added, “Future studies will be needed to examine in detail the issue of familiarity and whether petting animals can elicit a similar increase in prefrontal brain activity in patients with socio-emotional deficits.”

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Justin Scacco

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