Our dog can make you feel better, and here’s why

napping-with-dogs

Wayne Pacelle has a demanding job as president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. This is one of the reasons he brings Lily, his beagle mix, to work with him. He is convinced that animals “are a necessary ingredient in our emotional well-being,’’ he says. “I deal with many stressful issues, and I see terrible cruelty,’’ he adds. “But when Lily puts her head on my lap, it calms me.’’

Pacelle can’t scientifically document the positive effects he gains from his connection with Lily (and Zoe, his cat.) But his experience supports what researchers who study human/animal interaction have concluded: Pets, especially dogs, seem to be good for our health.

“Dogs make people feel good,’’ says Brian Hare, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University, who points out that dogs are found now in some courtrooms, exam study halls, hospitals, nursing homes, hospice-care settings, classrooms, airports and elsewhere, “and their only job is to help people in stressful situations feel better. Many people seem to respond to dogs in a positive way.’’

Scientists believe that the major source of people’s positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation and trust, and easing stress.

Research has shown that when humans interact with dogs, oxytocin levels increase in both species. “When parents look at their baby and their baby stares into their eyes, even though the baby can’t talk, parents get an oxytocin boost just by eye contact,’’ Hare says. “Dogs have somehow hijacked this oxytocin bonding pathway, so that just by making eye contact, or [by] playing and hugging our dog, the oxytocin in both us and our dog goes up. This is why dogs are wonderful in any kind of stressful situation.’’

Miho Nagasawa, a post­doctoral fellow at Jichi Medical University in Shimotsuke, Japan, has found that mutual gazing between humans and their dogs increases the owners’ oxytocin levels. This helps decrease anxiety and arousal levels, and slow the heart rate. “The positive interaction between humans and dogs via mutual gazing may reduce stress activity for each other,’’ she says.

Read more: washingtonpost.com

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