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Petting a dog, even when it's not your own, can boost your health for months

In an era where stress and mental health issues are on the rise, the fascinating connection between humans and dogs offers a glimpse into a therapeutic relationship that goes beyond mere companionship. 

The relationship between people and dogs that has far-reaching implications for both mental and physical well-being.

Interactions with dogs

Petting a dog, even briefly, has been found to boost your health for months. This is more than just a feel-good moment, as multiple studies have uncovered a profound physiological response to this simple act.

A growing body of research suggests that interactions with dogs could have a lasting positive impact on health. In fact, these brief positive experiences are powerful enough to lower stress hormones and increase oxytocin, which is often referred to as the “love hormone.”

Animals improve our thinking skills

The authors of a recent study found evidence that even brief moments of quality time with a good dog can also help people “think better.” Twice-weekly short interactions between school children and dogs were found to improve the youngsters’ reasoning skills and concentration, with the positive effects persisting for months.

“I think it is safe to say that animals are beneficial to our mental and physical health. We’re seeing really nice effects,” said Professor Nancy Gee, director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The VCU center is at the forefront of a burgeoning field of research into the health benefits of human-animal interaction. Supported by organizations such as the US National Institutes of Health and the Waltham PetCare Science Institute, this exploration has expanded rapidly.

Dogs lower our stress levels

Professor Gee told NPR that research on the health benefits of dogs has exploded in recent years, and the quality of the evidence has improved. She said there’s growing evidence that levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop in people after just five to 20 minutes spent interacting with dogs, even if it’s not their pet.

Last year, a comprehensive review by Australian medical researchers and psychologists scrutinized 129 peer-reviewed studies. They found that more than half of these investigations recorded positive physiological changes in individuals who spent as little as five minutes with a dog.

The love hormone

“‘Also, we see increases in oxytocin, that feel-good kind of bonding hormone,'” Gee told NPR. This research highlighted changes in people’s heartbeat, known as ‘heart rate variability’ (HVR), a sign of overall improvements in health.

Higher HVR has been linked with relaxation, while lower HVR is associated with serious health risks. “What I love about this research, is that it’s a two-way street. We see the same thing in the dogs. So the dogs’ oxytocin also increases when they interact with a human,” said Professor Gee.

Cognitive gains

International collaboration is playing a key role in understanding these phenomena. Gee’s work with the University of Lincoln’s research on regular playtime with dogs revealed significant benefits for school children, lowering stress and improving “executive functioning.” Remarkably, these cognitive gains were found to last.

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

Lower heart attack risk

But transient interactions with dogs are not the only source of health benefits. A meta-analysis published by the American Heart Association linked dog ownership with significant reductions in the risk of death and heart attack for survivors who lived alone. Overall, living with a dog was found to lower death risks by 24 percent.

Megan Mueller, a psychology professor at Tufts University, reflects on why dogs might have such a profound impact on humans. “Animals, and dogs in particular, live in the moment,” she told NPR. “They’re experiencing their environment with wonder and awe all the time.”

“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.”

More about the human-dog bond

The bond between dogs and humans is one of the most celebrated and complex relationships in the animal kingdom. This connection goes back thousands of years and has deep biological, psychological, and social components. Here’s an overview of the main factors that contribute to this unique relationship:

Historical perspective

Dogs were one of the first animals to be domesticated, with evidence suggesting that the domestication process began as far back as 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.

Initially, humans may have been drawn to wolves (the ancestors of domestic dogs) for their hunting prowess. Conversely, wolves could have benefitted from human leftovers and protection. Over time, this relationship evolved into a mutualistic one, with humans and dogs working together in hunting, herding, and protection.

Biological connection

Dogs and humans share a unique hormonal connection. Studies have shown that interactions between dogs and their human companions can increase levels of oxytocin, a hormone associated with bonding and affection, in both species. This creates a positive feedback loop that strengthens the attachment between dogs and humans.

Social structure

Dogs have social structures that are in some ways similar to human social structures. They are pack animals and understand hierarchy and roles within a social group. Many dogs view their human family as their pack and integrate themselves within that structure, obeying a leader and often fulfilling a specific role within the family unit.


Dogs have an uncanny ability to understand human gestures, expressions, and even words. While they may not understand human language in the way humans do, they can learn to associate specific sounds and gestures with actions and rewards. This mutual understanding fosters a deeper connection and facilitates training and cooperation.

Emotional support and companionship

Dogs provide emotional support and companionship to many people. They can sense human emotions and often respond with empathy and support. This has made them invaluable as therapy animals and companions for people who live alone or are going through difficult times.

Utility and working relationships

Throughout history, dogs have served humans in various working roles, such as hunting, herding, guarding, and more recently, assisting in police and military work, and aiding those with disabilities. This has fostered a sense of partnership and collaboration between the species.

Challenges and responsibilities

While the relationship between dogs and humans is often positive and fulfilling, it also entails significant responsibilities. Proper care, training, and understanding of a dog’s needs are crucial for a healthy relationship. Some challenges, such as behavioral issues or misunderstandings, can occur, but with proper knowledge and effort, these can usually be overcome.

The bond between dogs and humans is rich and multifaceted, rooted in our shared history and a complex interplay of biological, social, and emotional factors. Whether as working partners or beloved pets, dogs have become an integral part of human society. They provide companionship, support, and joy to millions of people around the world.


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