What playing with a dog does to your brain

A new study finds that playing with dogs turns the brain to mush.

A new study finds that playing with dogs turns the brain to mush. Photo: Getty

Spent any time in a pet-friendly park? Felt overwhelmed by the choir of yapping and people saying things like, “don’t worry, he’ll lick you to death”?

This is the question that eventually comes to mind: Do people actually get high on their dogs?

The short answer, according to science: Yes they do.

Which leads to another question: Will people put themselves through all manner of oddball experiments, just so they can spend time with dogs they don’t know?

Yes. They really will

In a novel experiment, 30 human participants wore a wireless electroencephalography (EEG) device to measure their brain activity, while they walked, petted, groomed and played with a dog.

The higher purpose of the experiment was to establish how the company of a dog might affect the brain of a lonely or disabled person.

Previous research has demonstrated that spending time with dogs can increase levels of oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” associated with bonding and stress relief.

The company of a dog has also been linked with a decrease in cortisol, the stress hormone. Lower levels of cortisol are linked to lower risks of cardiovascular diseases.

It’s for these reasons that dogs are used to provide company for dementia patients. They can be an effective alternative to drugs when treating anxiety and depression.

The mere presence of an animal can have a calming effect on the agitation, aggressive behaviour, restlessness, social withdrawal and disorientation that dementia patients routinely demonstrate.

Hence, establishing how different interactions with a dog positively affect the brain could be useful when developing protocols when introducing pets into a care setting.

The new study

In the new study, from Konkuk University in South Korea, various activities caused the participants’ brain waves to behave differently.

Playing and walking with a dog increased the strength of what’s known as alpha-band oscillations.

These tend to indicate stability and relaxation. Further, as the study authors note, alpha wave activity is linked with improved memory and reduced mental stress.

Grooming, playing and gently massaging the dog was linked with amplified beta-band oscillations. These are associated with heightened attention and concentration.

What the participants had to say

In written reports, participants said they felt less depressed, stressed and fatigued after spending an hour with the dog. Overall, they felt more positive.

As reported by PsyPost, activities such as feeding, massaging and hugging the dog were associated with particularly positive mood states, including increased feelings of vigour.

This supports the idea that direct, physical interactions with dogs “can foster a sense of emotional wellbeing and connection”.

What the researchers had to say

“Our study demonstrates that animal interaction activities, such as playing, walking, massaging and grooming dogs, have a positive effect by facilitating increased brain activity in healthy participants,” the researchers concluded.

“This indicates that certain activities activate relaxation, emotional stability, attention, concentration and creativity.”

Notably, they said, playing with the dog “has an affirmative effect on both relaxation and concentration”.

Additionally, “through a subjective mood assessment, results revealed that interactions with dogs can decrease human stress and induce positive emotional responses”.

This was a small study, and the results need to be replicated in future experiments. Also, not all participants had pets of their own.

However, their fondness for animals probably motivated their willingness to participate in the experiment. This potentially biased the results.

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