If you are a long-term dog owner or if you got a pandemic puppy, you might want to add your dog to the list of things you are grateful for. Research shows that interacting with dogs can downregulate the fight-or-flight stress response.
Interacting with therapy dogs reduces stress hormones, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and causes the release of the bonding neurotransmitter oxytocin, assisting in the downregulation of the stress response system. The presence of a dog while college students took the Trier Social Stress test reduced heart rate and stress hormone levels. The company of a pet reduced the stress response during mental math testing more effectively than the presence of a spouse or friend. The resulting state of calm from these interactions may enhance cognitive capacity.
A recent study examined the impact of interacting with therapy dogs on the executive skills of 309 college students. Executive function (EF) describes three brain functions: working memory, mental flexibility, and inhibitory control. EF empowers cognitive skills that are necessary for success in school or work including motivation, concentration, planning, prioritizing, emotion regulation, and the capacity to understand different points of view. Students were randomly assigned to the therapy dog interaction group or the stress management content group. The results showed that at-risk students who interacted with therapy dogs demonstrated greater executive function and metacognitive skills (understanding your own thinking) than the stress management content students, and that these benefits were still present 6 weeks later. Interacting with therapy dogs outperformed stress management content. The researchers believe that one explanation for the strong and enduring impact on cognitive skills is due to the downregulation of the stress response in these students after therapy dog interactions.
Takeaway: If you spend time with a dog, your interactions with them are likely to be lowering your stress response and improving your cognitive capacity.
Changwon Son, et al., Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study, J. Med. Internet Res., Sept. 3, 2020, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7473764/.
Nancy R. Gee, Aubrey H. Fine, and Peggy McCardle, How Animals Help Students Learn: Research and Practice for Educators and Mental-Health Professionals 48, 102, and 107 (2017).
Patricia Pendry, Alexa M. Carr, Jaymie L. Vandagriff, and Nancy R.j Gee, Incorporating Human–Animal Interaction Into Academic Stress Management Programs: Effects on Typical and At-Risk College Students’ Executive Function, American Educational Research Association (AERA) Open, May 11, 2021, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/23328584211011612