Even the most committed dog owners may sometimes guiltily think, “What if I didn’t have to spend so much time every day walking, feeding, and interacting with my dog? Think of all the hours I could spend doing things like reading, going to museums, and exploring the internet that could enrich my mind so much more!” I confess to having had occasional wistful thoughts like that, even though I loved my departed cockapoo dearly. But it’s time to banish such thoughts. New research shows that hanging out with a dog can improve mental health.
In a study out of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab, Elise Thayer and Jeffrey Stevens, PhD, showed that subjects who interacted with a dog improved their positive affect (positive emotions and expression of emotions) and decreased their negative affect, stress, and anxiety compared to people who did not interact with a dog. The canine communers self-reported their feelings and completed a series of cognitive tasks before and after meeting and petting Dr. Stevens’ warm and friendly dog for three minutes, while the control group completed the same tasks, but without a dog to see them through.
Psyching Up, Calming Down
“There is very strong evidence that positive affect was greater… for those who had human animal interactions (HAIs) than those who did not,” the researchers noted. “There is also strong evidence that anxiety was lower… and moderate evidence that stress was lower.”
Importantly, the researchers found that dogs lowered stress even for people who were not dog owners or had a prior friendship with a dog.
To make sure they weren’t just inadvertently studying people who had an innate fear of dogs, researchers made an effort to screen out people with dog phobia. And most subjects were students, most of whom couldn’t have dogs in their residences, “so those in the test group were generally super excited when they found out dogs were involved,” researchers wrote. “Nonetheless, some students in the study actually did worse emotionally after meeting with the dog than before meeting the dog. But on average, the subjects had notable reductions in what we call the distress factors (stress, anxiety, and negative affect), reinforcing previous research.”
A Dose of Dogs
One finding that has piqued the interest of researchers like Dr. Stevens is the notable lift that interacting with a dog can confer to a human in just a few minutes. Indeed, the people in Dr. Stevens’ study met with his loving pooch for just three minutes, and for most, that was enough to improve their mood and lower their stress in a significant way.
But other studies show that stress is reduced even more for those spending additional time with a dog, like how more sessions with a cognitive therapist can help contain neuroses more effectively than fewer sessions. An overarching review of the research into doses of doggy interaction comes from Angela Fournier, PhD, a professor in the department of psychology at Bemidji State University in Minnesota. Dr. Fournier, who specializes in the study of animal-assisted therapy, reports that the benefits of stress reduction keep increasing as time spent with a dog moves from two minutes up to the 15-minute mark. In other words, the more you spend time with your dog, the calmer and happier you’re likely to be — but only up to a point. There was a “period of exponential growth followed by a plateau,” Fournier writes in her roundup. “The findings suggest the dose-response relationship… is more complex than ‘the more the merrier.’” Still, with the emotional benefits of human-canine interaction now codified by science, it’s good to have another tool for cheer when life gets tough.
Children may benefit most of all. A 2020 study led by Molly Crossman, PhD, in the department of psychology at Yale University showed that unstructured interactions between dogs and children can so effectively reduce the children’s psychological distress factors that it can “improve clinically relevant symptoms,” potentially helping them stave off mental illness. “The present findings support the notion that animal-assisted activities may be an efficient strategy for improving children’s mental health,” the researchers wrote.
Cognitive Gains? The Jury Is Still Out
Over the very brief pooch exposures tested in the Nebraska study, the student subjects didn’t appear to improve their cognitive abilities. Indeed, in a series of cognitive tasks testing long and short-term memory and focusing, Dr. Stevens and colleagues found no cognitive improvement whether a student had gotten a dose of dog or not.
But longer interactions with the dogs might produce measurable cognitive improvements, Stevens suggests. To support this idea, he points to studies already showing that yoga, meditation, and even walking can both reduce stress and enhance cognition. Dogs, he contends, might have a similar impact if the “dose” is increased.
This all stands to reason, because mountains of convincing research have shown that stress, anxiety, and negative feelings may permanently reduce cognitive functioning over time. “Chronic stress can change the brain, affect memory, and increase the risk for Alzheimer’s and related dementias,” according to a review in the journal Neurobiology of Stress.
Similarly, decades of research show that reducing psychological distress can improve cognitive functioning, while depression can impair decision-making, memory, focus, and more.
Overall, a wide swath of peer-reviewed research demonstrates the psychological benefit of dogs — a low-cost intervention likely to pay dividends whether you own a pooch or just visit one from time to time. The gist is, a daily dose of dog is one of the best medicines there is to soothe and kick-start your brain
Three Ways to Prime Your Dog’s Mind
Bonding with your pet is good for his mental health as well as yours: Personally training your new puppy is the most obvious way you accomplish this mutual brain-building.
- Expose her to the world, other dogs, and other people. Starting when she’s a puppy, socialize her to all kinds of experiences, preparing her for the countless situations she is going to come across in life. Positive experiences with different environments, people, dogs — even cats or rabbits — will make her more relaxed and confident, more aware of everything around her and looking forward to all of it. It will make her life a great adventure. And you experiencing it all with her will keep bringing you closer together.
- Talk to him. Our repetitions of words and phrases in specific situations allows our dogs to form connections between the words, their emotions, and their behavior. Their memory of the words, our facial expressions, and the tone, volume, and attitude of our voices all help teach them how to feel and how to react to what we’re saying. It makes their brains work overtime, and it tells them they are special to us, because we are making eye contact with them and talking to them and them alone. By communicating with our dogs, we keep enriching our relationship with them.
- Take her off-leash. When you’re sure it’s safe, walk with her off her leash. This will add to her relaxation, fun, and spirit of adventure. Start in a controlled situation, like a fenced-in area, and let her get used to walking free within your sight. Work on “Stay” and “Stop” commands until you’re always sure she will obey them. Then, if you’re sure she would never run away, try going off-leash on a nature walk, away from traffic. Let her wander a bit, smell the roses, run, and chase something, while still staying within your sight. Her senses will be delighted by the sounds of innumerable birds, frogs, crickets, and rustling bushes, and a barrage of aromas from the vegetation. She’ll also be getting exercise and spending relaxed, casual time with you. By letting her lead the way and dictate the action for a change, you will build trust and communication between the two of you, and greatly expand her cognitive abilities and independence. If you worry that your dog will stray, try the nature walk with a long leash rather than off-leash.
A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, Inside Your Dog’s Mind, in 2021.
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