A recently published study provides evidence that spending time with a pet dog can have a positive impact on an individual’s emotional states, particularly in terms of enhancing positive feelings and reducing anxiety levels. The findings have been published in the scientific journal Emotion.
Many people believe that spending time with their pet dogs can improve their mood and reduce stress, which is often referred to as the “pet prescription.” Media outlets, researchers, and even healthcare professionals commonly suggest owning pets as a means to improve mental health.
Despite the widespread belief in the emotional benefits of pet dogs, the researchers noted a lack of strong empirical evidence to support these claims. Existing studies on pet ownership had methodological weaknesses, inconsistent results, and often lacked controlled experiments.
“Psychologists are always trying to find out how people can optimize their well-being, and pet dogs are an important topic simply because so many Americans own them,” said study author Hannah Raila, an assistant teaching professor at UC Santa Cruz. “Some of my colleagues – especially Molly Crossman Ruiz – have been looking into the emotional benefits of human-animal interaction for years. We knew that if we demonstrated that interacting with your pet dog boosted your mood more than other activities did, then such interactions could have the potential to alleviate distress at a large scale – and that’s exactly what we found.”
The researchers conducted a study involving 73 adult dog owners, primarily from the Northeast United States, to investigate the effects of interacting with dogs on human emotions and stress levels. The participants were mostly female (86.3%) and aged between 25 and 77 years, with an average age of 50.59 years. Among the participants, 67 (91.8%) reported being the primary caregiver for their dogs, while a few shared caregiving responsibilities equally with their partners.
In terms of the canine participants, dogs had to be at least 16 weeks old and meet specific health requirements, including proof of vaccinations and negative stool samples. The research team ensured that dogs were comfortable and closely monitored them for signs of stress or discomfort during the study. The researchers took special precautions to ensure the safety and well-being of both humans and dogs.
The researchers aimed to isolate the specific effects of interacting with a pet dog and differentiate it from other forms of human-animal interaction, such as animal-assisted therapies. They wanted to evaluate whether the interaction with the pet dog alone could provide emotional relief.
The procedure involved several steps. Participants underwent measurements and background information collection before completing a stress-inducing task called the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Task. This task involves participants listening to a rapid series of single-digit numbers and mentally adding each new number to the one immediately preceding it, with the goal of verbally providing the correct sum. This task is characterized by its fast-paced presentation of stimuli, challenging participants’ attention, working memory, and processing speed.
Participants were then assigned to one of three conditions: experimental (interacting with their dogs), expectancy control (a stress-reducing coloring activity), or waiting control. The assignment was randomized to ensure equivalence across conditions.
The researchers found that participants who interacted with their dogs after undergoing a stressful task experienced significant improvements in their emotional well-being. Specifically, these participants showed greater increases in positive affect (i.e., an improvement in their mood) and reductions in anxiety compared to the two control groups.
“When you are feeling distressed, spending time with your pet dog could comfort you more than some other activities do,” Raila told PsyPost. “So keep your pup in mind when you’re feeling down and are looking for a mood boost! Our findings show that this isn’t just a correlation, but that your pet dog actually causes you to feel better in those moments.”
The researchers also explored whether participants’ prior experiences with dogs, attitudes toward dogs, and the characteristics of their own dogs influenced the observed benefits of dog interaction. Surprisingly, they found that these factors did not significantly affect the degree of improvement experienced by participants. Additionally, specific behaviors during the dog interaction, such as physical touch, were not individually associated with mood outcomes.
“I was surprised that self-reported experiences with animals, attitudes toward animals, and bondedness with the dog did not differentially predict the interaction’s impact on the owner’s mood,” Raila explained. “I would expect that those variables could predict for whom the interaction would be most helpful, but that was not the case in our study.”
However, the total time spent actively engaging with the dog predicted a greater decrease in negative affect and anxiety, highlighting the potential importance of overall interaction and engagement in influencing emotional well-being.
“One important question is precisely how the mood boost works (i.e., what it is about the interaction that matters) and for what types of people it is especially well-suited,” Raila added.
The study, “The Influence of Interactions With Pet Dogs on Psychological Distress“, was authored by Angela Matijczak, Morgan S. Yates, Molly C. Ruiz, Laurie R. Santos, Alan E. Kazdin, and Hannah Raila.