Why just stroking a dog really can make you happy


Pet owners often wonder why we love our dogs and how they make us so happy.

Now, scientists may be one step closer to the answer - after discovering that man’s best friend activates the region of the human brain responsible for emotional attachment.

The relationship between pet and owner is unique in its strength, crossing species boundaries - and researchers now know that merely being in close proximity to dogs affects our minds.

Swiss researchers recruited 19 people and tracked their brain activity with infrared sensors to measure blood flow. Participants were asked to lay on a bed alongside either a real dog or stuffed toy.

The dogs of the study were a six-year-old Jack Russell, a four-year-old Goldendoodle, and a four-year-old Golden Retriever.

The control aspect of the experiment was a plush lion toy, dubbed Leo, who was filled with a hot water bottle to recreate the warmth and weight of the dogs.

Analysis showed that there was a spike in activity when participants interacted with the real dogs. The connection was stronger when stroking and petting the dog and not just sitting next to them.

Participants' brain activity was monitored while they stroked dogs - Rahel Marti
Participants' brain activity was monitored while they stroked dogs - Rahel Marti

“To say that it shows that it makes them happy would be too much simplification,” Rahel Marti, study author from the University of Basel, told The Telegraph.

“But we think that one explanation is that the participants were emotionally involved. Interacting with animals is emotionally relevant for a lot of people.”

She added that the team behind the study believe the triggering of this part of the brain, and the subsequent emotional attachment, might fundamentally underpin the biology of human interactions with animals.

Data show that the more a stranger interacted with a dog, the stronger the brain response became. However, any benefit the people got from Leo the inanimate lion decreased the more they sat with it.

“Our explanation is that the participant established a bond with the dog,” said Ms Marti.

“This bond probably contributed to the participants being more emotionally involved and interested in the dog, whereas no such bond was established with the plush animal. But further research is needed to confirm this result.”

The study is published in Plos One.