In today’s fast-paced world, stress and mental health problems have become commonplace. However, amidst all the chaos, the bond shared between humans and their furry friends has emerged as a beacon of hope, revealing a therapeutic connection that goes beyond simple companionship.
The implications of this relationship on mental and physical health are vast, and the possibilities are endless. In particular, recent research has shown that petting dogs can affect a person’s mental health and mood — for the better.
Mental health benefits of petting dogs
Petting a dog, even for a brief moment, has been discovered to have lasting mental health benefits. This isn’t just a feel-good experience. In fact, multiple studies have revealed a significant physiological response to this seemingly simple — and, not to mention, enjoyable — action.
It appears that even fleeting moments spent interacting with canines have the ability to reduce levels of stress-inducing hormones, while simultaneously elevating oxytocin — fondly nicknamed the “love hormone.”
What’s more, the researchers discovered that even short, quality time with a pooch can enhance cognitive abilities. Bi-weekly brief interactions between school kids and dogs were shown to boost the children’s reasoning skills and concentration. What’s more, is that these positive effects lasted for months.
Professor Nancy Gee is the director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. As she said, “I think it is safe to say that animals are beneficial to our mental and physical health. We’re seeing really nice effects.”
The VCU center is leading the way in the emerging field of research focused on the health advantages of human-animal interaction. With support from organizations like the Waltham Petcare Science Institute and the National Institutes of Health in the United States, this research has experienced rapid growth.
Lower stress levels due to canine interactions
In an interview with NPR, Professor Gee discussed the exciting advancements in research surrounding the health benefits of petting dogs. Not only has the quantity of studies increased, but the quality of evidence has also significantly improved. One exciting discovery is that interacting with pooches for only five to 20 minutes can reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, in people. That’s true even if the dog they are petting isn’t their own.
Last year, Australian medical researchers and psychologists conducted a thorough review of 129 peer-reviewed studies. Their findings revealed that over half of these studies documented positive physiological improvements in individuals who spent just five minutes with a dog.
“Also, we see increases in oxytocin, that feel-good kind of bonding hormone,” Gee explained to NPR. This research sheds light on changes in individuals’ heart rate variability (HRV) — a key indicator of overall well-being.
Increased HRV has been associated with relaxation, while decreased HRV is linked to significant health concerns. “What I love about this research, is that it’s a two-way street.” She continued, “We see the same thing in the dogs. So the dogs’ oxytocin also increases when they interact with a human.”
Owning dog lowers risk of heart attacks, study says
While spending small moments with furry friends certainly has its benefits, owning a dog could be the ultimate key to a longer, healthier life. Recent research from the American Heart Association indicates that dog ownership greatly lowers the risk of heart attack and death for individuals who live alone. The study revealed that overall, having a dog in the home reduced the likelihood of premature death by 24 percent.
According to Megan Mueller, a psychology professor at Tufts University, it all comes down to a dog’s unique perspective on life. Unlike humans, who tend to dwell on the past or worry about the future, dogs are completely immersed in the present moment.
“They’re experiencing their environment with wonder and awe all the time,” Mueller explains. “They are not bringing up what happened to them earlier in the day or what they’re thinking about in the future. They’re there right now,” she says.
More about the human-canine connection
Few relationships in the animal kingdom can match the complexity and beauty of the bond between humans and dogs. This connection has endured for millennia and is woven into the fabric of our biology, psychology, and social structures. Let’s explore the primary factors that shape and sustain this one-of-a-kind association:
The domestication of dogs dates back approximately 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, making them one of the earliest domesticated animals. In the beginning, humans might have been intrigued by wolves — the ancestors of domestic dogs — due to their hunting skills. On the other hand, wolves could have found benefits in human scraps and protection. This connection eventually developed into a mutually beneficial relationship, with humans and canines collaborating in hunting, herding, and safeguarding activities.
Dogs and humans possess a distinct hormonal link. Research has revealed that interactions between human beings and their pups can elevate oxytocin levels — a hormone linked to emotional bonding in the two species. This establishes a constructive feedback loop that deepens the emotional connection between them.
Social organization patterns
Dogs exhibit social organization patterns that bear certain similarities to those found in human societies. They are pack-oriented creatures, understanding the concepts of hierarchy and roles within their social groups. A considerable number of dogs regard their human families as their pack and naturally introduce themselves into this structure — recognizing a leader and taking on a specific role within the family unit.
Canines possess a remarkable knack for comprehending human gestures, facial expressions, and even certain words. Although they don’t grasp human language in the same way humans do, they can establish connections between particular sounds and gestures with corresponding actions and rewards. This shared understanding deepens the bond between humans and dogs while greatly easing both training and cooperation.
Functional and collaborative roles
Over the course of history, dogs have undertaken numerous functional roles for humans — including hunting, herding, and protecting. Pups have also engaged in more contemporary tasks like assisting in police and military operations, as well as helping individuals with disabilities. These responsibilities have cultivated a strong sense of partnership and cooperation between the two species.
Pet a dog, boost your mental health
It’s easy to see why dogs can have such a profound impact on human well-being — they teach us the art of being present, remind us of the beauty that exists in each moment, and bring us back to a place of inner peace and tranquility. Whether we’re taking them on long walks or cuddling with them on the couch, these creatures are a powerful force for good in our lives. So, the next time you’re cuddled up with your furry friend, take a moment to soak in their joy and wonder. Who knows — it might just be the key to a healthier, happier you!