Ask anyone who owns a dog and they’ll tell you they feel better when their dog is close and studies have been done to show Serotonin increases from just looking at your dog.
The problem is there hasn’t been a lot of scientific evidence to backup what dog owners and dog lovers believe to be true. Until now that is, researchers at the University at California provided evidence that spending time with a pet dog can have a positive impact on an individual’s emotional states, particularly in terms of enhancing positive feelings and reducing anxiety levels.
Despite the widespread belief in the emotional benefits of pet dogs, the researchers noted a lack of strong empirical evidence to support these claims. Existing studies on pet ownership had methodological weaknesses, inconsistent results, and often lacked controlled experiments.
“Psychologists are always trying to find out how people can optimize their well-being, and pet dogs are an important topic simply because so many Americans own them,” said study author Hannah Raila, an assistant teaching professor at UC Santa Cruz. “Some of my colleagues – especially Molly Crossman Ruiz – have been looking into the emotional benefits of human-animal interaction for years.
We knew that if we demonstrated that interacting with your pet dog boosted your mood more than other activities did, then such interactions could have the potential to alleviate distress at a large scale – and that’s exactly what we found.”
Proving the psychological benefit
The researchers aimed to isolate the specific effects of interacting with a pet dog and differentiate it from other forms of human-animal interaction, such as animal-assisted therapies. They wanted to evaluate whether the interaction with the pet dog alone could provide emotional relief.
The procedure involved several steps. Participants underwent measurements and background information collection before completing a stress-inducing task called the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task. This task involves participants listening to a rapid series of single-digit numbers and mentally adding each new number to the one immediately preceding it, with the goal of verbally providing the correct sum. This task is characterized by its fast-paced presentation of stimuli, challenging participants’ attention, working memory, and processing speed.
Participants were then assigned to one of three conditions: experimental (interacting with their dogs), expectancy control (a stress-reducing coloring activity), or waiting control. The assignment was randomized to ensure equivalence across conditions.
The researchers found that participants who interacted with their dogs after undergoing a stressful task experienced significant improvements in their emotional well-being. Specifically, these participants showed greater increases in positive affect (i.e., an improvement in their mood) and reductions in anxiety compared to the two control groups.
Prior Dog experience
The researchers also explored whether participants’ prior experiences with dogs, attitudes toward dogs, and the characteristics of their own dogs influenced the observed benefits of dog interaction. Surprisingly, they found that these factors did not significantly affect the degree of improvement experienced by participants. Additionally, specific behaviors during the dog interaction, such as physical touch, were not individually associated with mood outcomes.
“I was surprised that self-reported experiences with animals, attitudes toward animals, and bonds with the dog did not deferentially predict the interaction’s impact on the owner’s mood,” Raila explained. “I would expect that those variables could predict for whom the interaction would be most helpful, but that was not the case in our study.”
Spending time with dogs decreased the negative effects of anxiety and stress, regardless of whether the human has experience with dogs or not.
This study reinforces the research and studies currently being done for service animals and emotional support animals in a more broader sense.
Future research is planned to identify where and how the maximum effect of the mood boost can be appreciated and also the effect on the dogs. This study only looked at the human reactions and the effect on the dogs would also need to be measured.