Why petting a dog is good for the brain

By | 12 October 2022

A new study shows that petting a dog is good for both the animal and the human.

A new study measured the effect of dog petting on human brain activity. Dogs have previously been shown to reduce stress, but the neurological mechanisms have not been studied. Many current and potential treatments involve animals, especially dogs.

It has long been known that dogs are “man’s best friend”. Now a new study out of Switzerland suggests that dogs may be good for our brains. The researchers recruited 19 healthy adults (9 women and 10 men) to measure their brain activity over several sessions, with or without a dog.

The findings could improve the effectiveness of animal-assisted therapies used to treat many conditions, including:

post-traumatic stress disorder.

How was the study carried out? And what were the results?

Previous studies on the physiological effects of dogs on humans often used imaging technologies such as PET scan, positron emission topography.

If imaging scanners have many medical uses, they have some disadvantages in a study like this. They can be noisy and long, and participants sometimes have to stand still. These are not characteristics that usually associate well with dogs, so previous studies have often used photos of dogs as substitutes.

In this study, the researchers chose to use functional spectroscopy in the near infrared (fNIRS). Two electrodes were placed on the participants’ foreheads to measure the activity of the prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain plays an important role in social cognitive processing.

The participants were first measured in a neutral state, facing a white wall. Then the measures were taken while contact with a dog was gradually introduced.
The participants were first able to see the dog, then sit next to it, and finally pet it before returning to a neutral state. None of the participants had any allergies or phobias of dogs.

These measurements were taken over 6 sessions for each participant: 3 with a dog, and 3 with a plush toy. The plush contained a hot water bottle to give it more weight and warmth.
Three real dogs were used, all females aged 4 to 6 years. There was a Jack Russel, a goldendoodle and a golden retriever.

The results showed that brain activity increased significantly during the progressive phases of the experiment and that the oxygenated hemoglobin level remained high (indicating increased activity) even after the dog had left. The plush had similar effects, but only at first. The researchers indicated that as the participants returned for other sessions, the difference in brain activity between the sessions with the dog and those with the plush toy increased significantly.

Mise en pratique au quotidien

La communauté médicale s’intéresse à la mise en pratique des résultats de cette étude. Les thérapies assistées par des chiens sont précieuses pour de nombreux troubles chroniques et peuvent être employées dans des contextes où le « calme » est nécessaire, comme avec les enfants et dans les établissements de soins de longue durée.

Les animaux de compagnie comme les chiens peuvent et doivent être considérés comme une option thérapeutique importante pour les patients de tous âges qui traversent un certain nombre de problèmes de santé physique ou mentale. Les experts ont noté qu’un aspect intéressant de l’étude était l’effet accru de plusieurs séances avec un chien.

L’exposition et l’expérience favorisent la familiarité. Des études de psychologie ont constamment démontré comment le simple effet d’exposition influence une préférence pour la familiarité : nous préférons les choses qui nous sont familières à celles qui sont nouvelles. Cette certitude et ce confort sont sans aucun doute bidirectionnels, de sorte que non seulement nous réagissons plus positivement, mais le chien a également tendance à réagir plus positivement aux humains avec lesquels il entretient des liens sécurisés.

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