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Interacting with dogs may affect multiple areas of the brain, study finds

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If you decompress by playing with dogs or checking their adorable videos on social media, you might be onto something.

Interacting with dogs in such ways may strengthen people’s brain waves associated with rest and relaxation, as measured by brain tests, according to a small study published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.

Multiple studies have shown the emotional, physiological and cognitive benefits of interactions with animals, especially dogs — such as boosted energy, increased positive emotions or lowered risk for memory loss. That’s why animal-assisted health interventions are being increasingly used in diverse fields, the study authors said.

Playing with your dog may not just be good for your pet — it could also benefit your emotional health, according to a new study. - Goodboy Picture Company/E+/Getty Images
Playing with your dog may not just be good for your pet — it could also benefit your emotional health, according to a new study. - Goodboy Picture Company/E+/Getty Images

Previous studies often took “a holistic approach, comparing people’s mood or hormone levels before and after spending time with a dog,” said the study’s first author, Onyoo Yoo, a doctoral student in the department of bio and healing convergence at Konkuk University’s graduate school in Seoul, via email.

In this new study, Yoo and colleagues aimed to find out how mood was affected by specific activities — rather than just general interaction with a dog — by both objectively measuring brain activity and asking participants about their subjective emotions.

The study involved 30 healthy adults who were around age 28 on average and had been recruited from pet salons and a dog grooming school in Seongnam, South Korea, between May and June 2022.

In a drab, quiet room at a local grooming academy, each participant did eight activities with a 4-year-old, well-trained, female standard poodle owned by the study’s lead author. The activities included meeting, playing, feeding, massaging, grooming, photographing, hugging and walking the dog.

Before activities began, participants sat and stared at the wall for three minutes to minimize any stimulation that could taint the results. The authors measured participants’ brain waves, using electroencephalogram tests, or EEGs, for three minutes during each activity.

An EEG is a noninvasive test that measures electrical activity in the brain using small metal discs called electrodes, which are attached to the scalp. These tests provide “quick and accurate insights into unconscious processes that self-disclosure may not uncover,” Yoo said.

A study participant pets the poodle involved in the research. - EurekAlert/PLoS One Journal/Konk
A study participant pets the poodle involved in the research. - EurekAlert/PLoS One Journal/Konk

After each task, the authors gave participants a couple of minutes to answer questionnaires on their emotional states. The whole process took around an hour.

Different activities had varying effects on participants’ brain waves. Playing and walking with a dog increased the strength of the alpha-band oscillations, the authors found, which generally indicate stability and relaxation. Alpha wave activity has been linked with improved memory and reduced mental stress, according to the study.

Grooming, playing and gently massaging the dog was linked with strengthened beta-band oscillation, which is associated with heightened attention and concentration. Participants also felt significantly less depressed, stressed and fatigued after interacting with the poodle.

Since much of the research in this field has been anecdotal or subjective, though not surprising, “it is super exciting” that the new study provides more insight into exactly how the known benefits may be occurring, said Dr. Colleen Dell, a professor and research chair in One Health & Wellness at the University of Saskatchewan in Canada, via email.

“Studying the area in a multitude of ways — such as the EEG and subjective scales — is really important,” said Dell, who wasn’t involved in the study.

How engaging with dogs affects the brain

While not all participants had pets of their own, “their fondness for animals likely motivated their willingness to participate in the experiment, potentially biasing the results,” Yoo said. “Animal-assisted therapy can be very beneficial for people who enjoy being around animals.”

Beyond the changes in brain activity observed in the study, “this study was not designed to determine what mechanisms might link pet interactions to the observed changes in brain activity,” said Dr. Tiffany Braley, the Holtom-Garrett Family Professor of Neurology at the University of Michigan, who wasn’t involved in the study.

However, the prefrontal cortex, one of the regions examined in this study, “is thought to be involved in emotional and social processing, offering the possibility that emotional or social bonding with animals could affect activity in this region,” Braley added via email. “Furthermore, prior studies have suggested that reduced cortisol levels and elevations in oxytocin may play a role in physiological changes associated with human-animal interactions.”

The study did have some weaknesses, experts said — such as the low number of study participants and the fact they didn’t have mental, medical or neurological conditions, which could benefit the most from these types of interventions, Braley said. Additionally, the study didn’t have a control group to see if the actions, when done with a human instead of a dog, would have similar benefits.

“It will be important to confirm the validity of these findings in future studies,” Yoo said.

Applying doggie research to your life

Though more studies are needed, if you already have a dog, there’s now more evidence supporting interactions with your pet, experts said.

Most of these activities are likely enjoyed by your dog, Dell said, but pay attention to what they don’t like — some dogs don’t like to be hugged, for example.

If you want to adopt a dog, there are several things you should consider. You would need extra money for at least pet supplies, health care, toys, food and pet sitting, all of which can add up to hundreds or thousands of dollars annually. If you adopt a puppy, it will need to be trained, and any new pet would need to be acclimated to a new environment regardless of age. Then there’s the quality time a dog needs on a regular basis.

If you’re not ready for a pet but still want to obtain the benefits for emotional health, you might want to try playing with a loved one’s pet or visiting a local shelter or pet store that allows playing with the dogs even if you’re not going to adopt them. Doing so is especially encouraged at places with lots of puppies since the quality time helps socialize them.

Recognition of the dog’s welfare is important, Dell said, “because if the dog is not healthy and happy then they (also) cannot participate in the intervention fully.”

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