Petting dogs engages the social brain - study

A method of coping with stress and depression is through interacting with animals, specifically dogs.

 A dog. (photo credit: PIXABAY)
A dog.
(photo credit: PIXABAY)

Petting real dogs engages the social brain, a discovery that could help improve animal-assisted clinical therapy, according to a study published yesterday. 

Rahel Marti and colleagues at the University of Basel in Switzerland found that viewing, feeling, and touching real dogs increases the level of activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is the part of the brain that helps regulate and process social and emotional interactions. The study, published in the peer-reviewed journal PLOS ONE, reveals that this increase in activity continues after the dogs are no longer present, but decreases once the dogs are replaced with stuffed animals. 

In the study, 19 healthy individuals participated in six sessions. During three of the sessions, participants had contact with a real dog, and in the remaining three sessions, they interacted with a plush animal. The plush animal, named Leo, was a stuffed lion with fur that was filled with a water bottle to match the temperature and weight of the dogs.

During all of the sessions, the participants had five two-minute phases during which they either viewed the dog, reclined with the same dog against their legs, or petted the dog. The prefrontal cortex of the brain was measured in a non-invasive manner by using infrared neuro-imaging technology

The results showed that the prefrontal brain activity was greatest when participants interacted with the real dogs in the most interactive condition which was petting.

 Dog illustrative (credit: FLICKR) Dog illustrative (credit: FLICKR)

“The present study demonstrates that prefrontal brain activity in healthy subjects increased with a rise in interactional closeness with a dog or a plush animal. Moreover, participants had higher brain activation in the presence of a dog compared to in the presence of a plush animal,” Marti writes.

“This indicates that interactions with a dog might activate more attentional processes and elicit stronger emotional arousal than comparable nonliving stimuli.”

Rahel Marti

Why are the results of this study significant?

A method of coping with stress and depression is through interacting with animals, specifically dogs. Therefore, the researchers believe that a better understanding of the brain activity associated with dogs could help clinicians design new and improved systems for animal-assisted therapy. 

“The results are clinically relevant for patients with deficits in motivation, attention, and socio-emotional functioning,” writes Marti. “Integrating animals into therapeutic interventions might therefore be a promising approach for improving emotional involvement and attention.”