Daily, one can read headlines about “Big Pharma’s” advancements on a groundbreaking drug (and subsequent increase in market share) on one page, and the recently discovered harmful side effects of a trusted treatment on another. This is the development of the medical field at its best and worst, delivered in digestible coffee break morsels.
To be newsworthy is powerful, and yet, so is acknowledging the importance of enduring positive influences on our minds and bodies that we, all too often, take for granted. Shouldn’t it be front-page news that we have a time-proven, stress-busting treatment that is all natural, readily accessible and low cost at our fingertips? (A warning though – addiction is likely.) This revolutionary treatment is: Pet a dog!
You are unlikely to receive this prescription written in your doctor’s illegible scrawl, with the advice to proceed to the nearest Lab, Poodle or Labradoodle. However, the effects are undeniable. The question is: How do we reconcile the laboratory and the dog park?
The bond between human and animal has been one that has fascinated us and, in many ways, eluded our efforts to dissect and understand its complexities. We can inherently feel this connection, and yet it is incredibly difficult to replicate, reproduce, and report in a laboratory setting. Laboratory scientists are confined to structure their studies in such a way so that a direct relationship between action and response can be drawn. Controls are put in place to keep external factors at bay in order to produce “pure” results and “good data.” My undergraduate background in Animal Biology was built in this safe and sterile environment: laboratory-based physiological research on a cellular level, where every step, exposure time, and protocol was developed to ensure controlled experiments in hopes of understanding very specific processes.
Studying behaviour like emotional response poses very different challenges that must be assessed before, during and after the research is performed. For example, when research subjects are asked to describe the statement “I feel happy”, researchers receive a wide array of adjectives and metaphors that explain this topic. But how can emotion be measured? Using the control-based approach that scientific research is founded in, scientists now understand that there are markers in each of us that unite and relate our responses to “happy” situations. More importantly, there are markers that those of us in or from the laboratory-based research community can measure, quantify, publish, reproduce in another study, publish, and maybe even verify!
One of the approaches to how dogs make us feel has taken this very path. Using variables in our lifestyle (e.g. daily exercise amount) and physiological markers such as heart rate, as well as measuring a variety of cellular responses (e.g. cortisol levels) attained from study participants, all lead to the fact that the emotional impact of this human canine bond can, in a sense, be measured.
So where does petting a dog come into play? And how can this simple act help you feel better? Among many studies looking into the variables at play, researchers of two separate studies found that participants being monitored for physiological response to stressful situations actually had lower stress responses (measured through cortisol levels) when dogs were present than those participants that underwent the same test without dogs being present. In both cases, the presence of a canine during testing decreased the extent of the participant’s response to stress (Miller et al., 2009; Pohleber & Matchock, 2013). Researchers are now applying these positive results to the classroom and the office by studying various aspects in which the presence of canines, and the calming, pleasant effect they have, can be applied purposefully for therapeutic and educational options for children, and even in such a way to increase productivity in office and workplace settings (O’Haire, 2013; One Health, 2014; Fitzgerald and Kimberly, 2012).
It is also important to remember that the dog-human relationship is a two-way street. The benefits of a strong bond to combat stress and the unfamiliar are just as important for your canine. Just as petting a dog can lower stress in our own bodies, the same is being found true for canines. In one study, participating canines that were being touched by their caregivers during the presence of a stranger had marked decreases in their overall mean heart rate when compared to dogs faced with the same situation while separated from their owner (Gacsi et al., 2013). Another study looking at the benefits of brief petting and play sessions with a dog (30 minutes) from a shelter dog’s perspective found that this human interaction was effective in decreasing fear related behaviour (e.g. panting and vocalization,) and also had physiological benefits (a decrease in plasma cortisol level concentrations from the interaction) (Shiverdecker, et al., 2013). It is therefore possible for those of us who are not fulltime canine caregivers to still benefit from this therapy through volunteer and foster programs with local shelter and adoption services. It may also be possible for some of these canines to also benefit mentally and physically by participating in programs that offer therapeutic benefits back to humans through office and school education programs.
My research into the healthful benefits of interaction between our dogs and us does not pretend that canine ownership offers a medical cure-all for disease and health-related issues. Nor would I advocate for people to believe they should have a dog in their lives for the sole purpose of healing their mind and body. Rather this article, and the goal of Canines By Design, is to transform the field of dog owner education by integrating current scientific research with our everyday interest in the canine-human bond. Understanding these intricacies and being holistically educated on the topic of canines can have beneficial impacts socially, physiologically, and emotionally for both human and canines.
- Miller, S.C., Kennedy, C., DeVoe, D., Hickey, M., Nelson, T., Kogan, L. (2009). An examination of changes in oxytocin levels in men and women before and after interaction with a bonded dog. Anthrozoos: A multidisciplinary Journal of the Interactions of People & Animals. 22: 31-42.
- Polheber, J.P., Matchock, R.L. (2013). The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and heart rate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends. J. Behav. Med.: DOI 10.1007/s10865-013-9546-1.
- O’Haire, M.E. (2013). Animal-assisted intervention for autism spectrum disorder: A systematic literature review. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. 43: 1606-1622.
- One Health- Mills, D., Hall, S. (2014). Animal-assisted interventions: making better use of the human-animal bond. Veterinary Record. Retrieved from: http://22.214.171.124/content/174/11/269.full.pdf+html. Accessed May 20, 2014.
- Fitzgerald, C., Kimberly, D.M. (2012). Evolution in the office: How evolutionary psychology can increase employee heath, happiness, and productivity. Evolutionary Psychology 10: 770-781.
- Gacsi, M., Maros, K., Sernkvist, S., Farafo, T., Miklosi, A. (2013). Human analogue Safe Haven Effect of the owner: Behavioural and heart rate response to stressful social stimuli in dogs. PLOS One. 3: DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0058475
- Shiverdecker, M.D., Schiml, P.A., Hennessy, M.B. (2013). Human interaction moderated plasma cortisol and behavioral responses of dogs to shelter housing. Physiology & Behavior. 109: 76-79.