Is known that dogs deeply benefit our mental health as well as providing emotional support. But our pets may also help our brains in other surprising ways, according to new research.
Scientists have analyzed the impact of petting a dog on the brain’s prefrontal cortex, revealing findings that could one day improve animal-assisted therapies for humans. The findings were published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE.
Here is the background – The brain’s prefrontal cortex plays a vital role in processing emotions and regulating tasks related to executive function, such as attention, maintaining working memory, and problem solving. The researchers wanted to know how this part of the brain would respond to interacting with a dog, which is one of the most common pets in animal-assisted therapy.
“We decided to start this study because little is known about the brain’s response to interaction with animals,” says Rahel Marti. Inverse. Marti is the lead author of the study and a researcher in the psychology department at the University of Basel.
Marti’s research team analyzed how the frontal cortex of 21 volunteers activated in response to contact with either a dog or a stuffed animal compared to a neutral activity such as staring at a blank wall. The researchers measured their brain activity using a method known as near-infrared spectroscopy, which is a non-invasive way of calculating oxygen saturation in the brain. It also has advantages over other brain imaging methods, such as fMRI, in that participants can sit in a regular room and feel more comfortable.
In sessions involving the stuffed animal, the researchers placed the stuffed animal on the participant’s thigh to look at it and were later able to pet the toy. Similarly, the dog lay on the couch, touching the participant, and, in a subsequent session, the participant was allowed to pet the animal.
What did they find – The research yielded two key findings that provide striking insight into a dog’s effect on the human brain.
First: Brain activity in the prefrontal cortex increased when participants had closer contact with either the stuffed animal or the live dog.
“Our result confirms previous studies linking closer contact with animals or control stimuli with increased brain activation,” says Marti.
But the second finding was even more fascinating: Study participants showed higher brain activity when petting the dog than when interacting with the stuffed animal. This is consistent with previous studies in horses and cats, but is the first to document increased human brain activity when interacting with canines.
“What’s new here is that we looked at different interactions: Tracking, sensing and stroking,” adds Marti.
Why did it happen – While brain activity decreased between the first and second interactions participants had with the stuffed animal, the opposite occurred with the dog—a result that surprised the scientists. While we can’t say for sure why brain activity increased over time while petting the dog, the researchers have a hunch.
“Our explanation is that the participant formed a bond with the dog,” Marty says.
This bond likely gave participants an emotional investment in the animal, leading to greater attention—indicated by higher activity in the prefrontal cortex—when petting the dog compared to the stuffed animal. Previous research shows that animals can improve attention to humans, possibly by increasing their emotional engagement—for example, a human is more likely to think about a dog’s feelings when petting it.
“We believe that emotional involvement may be a central underlying brain activation mechanism in human-animal interactions,” explains Marti.
Why it matters – The paper suggests that petting a dog can engage our emotions and attention in a way that inanimate stimuli – such as stuffed animals – cannot.
It is possible that dogs may help patients who have difficulty paying attention in social situations, particularly people who show higher levels of emotional engagement and brain activity when interacting with puppies. Therapy dogs are already used in medical settings for pain management and other purposes.
“Our results may be relevant to the treatment of patients with deficits in motivation, attention, and socioemotional functioning,” Marti says, adding that “such activities could increase the likelihood of learning and achieving therapeutic goals.”
What’s next – Further research will be needed to confirm and build on Marti’s research before therapy dogs can help people with attention deficits. Future research could focus on whether all participants benefit from increased emotional engagement and attention when petting puppies, or whether this finding only applies to people who already like dogs.
“This study is just a first step,” says Marti.