Petting Other People’s Dogs, Even Briefly, Can Reduce Stress

Nevena Nacic
by Nevena Nacic
Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock

Improved cardiovascular and mental health are just some of the many health benefits of owning a pet. But according to new research, you don’t even have to own a dog to experience health benefits - petting other people’s dogs for 5 to 20 minutes can increase happiness and reduce stress.

I think it’s safe to say that animals are beneficial to our mental and physical health,” says Nancy Gee, a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, told NPR.

Research on human-animal interactions is still in the beginning stage. But there’s some evidence that even brief exchanges between people and dogs can lower stress hormones. Gee explains that research shows that people experience a drop in cortisol levels after spending only 5 to 20 minutes interacting with a dog, even if the dog isn’t their pet. “Also, we see an increase in oxytocin, that feel-good kind of bonding hormone,” Gee says.

Interestingly, it’s not just people who benefit from these brief, friendly interactions. “What I love about this research is that it’s a two-way street. We see the same thing in dogs, so the dogs’ oxytocin also increases when they interact with a human.”

Thanks to funding from the private and public sectors, the research on human-animal interactions has taken off in recent years. A range of studies focused on the relationship between people and animals are funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Waltham PetCare Science Institute. 

The therapy dogs used in Gee’s research are assessed for friendliness, good behavior, and willingness to obey. But not everyone is a dog person, whether because of personal preferences, allergies, or other factors. “Pets are not a panacea. They’re not necessarily going to be great for every single person. But for people who really get it, who really connect with the animals, they really can make a big difference,” Gee says.

There’s also evidence that short interactions with a dog can help us think better. Gee collaborated on a randomized controlled trial involving school children in the U.K. Researchers discovered that kids who had short interactions with dogs in the classroom, two times a week, experienced less stress and improved executive functioning - a cognitive process that allows children, and adults to plan and stay focused on a task longer. And those positive effects continued for several months.

“We actually saw [those effects] one month later. And there’s some evidence that [they] may exist six months later,” says Gee. 

But what’s so special about dogs, that interacting with them reduces stress and helps us focus? Megan Mueller, an associate professor at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University believes that dogs encourage us to live in the moment.

Animals, and dogs, in particular, live in the moment. They are experiencing their environment with wonder and awe all the time, and they aren’t bringing up what happened to them earlier in the day or what they are thinking about in the future. They are there, right now.” says Mueller. 

Nevena Nacic
Nevena Nacic

Nevena is a freelance writer and a proud mom of Teo, a 17-year-old poodle, and Bob, a rescued grey tabby cat. Since childhood, she had a habit of picking up strays and bringing them home (luckily, her parents didn't know how to say NO). When she's not writing for her fellow pet parents, Nevena can be found watching Teo sleep. To her defense, that's not as creepy as it sounds!

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