Most dog owners will tell you that their dogs make them happy and give them pleasure, but dogs' therapeutic value goes beyond this. Non-dog owners can benefit from interacting with dogs, too: Canine therapy is used in hospitals and schools to help reduce anxiety, relieve stress, and foster feelings of pleasure and trust in children and patients. Personal therapy dogs help people with PTSD, epilepsy and other conditions feel safe.

Human interactions with dogs run the gamut from grooming, petting, feeding to playing and training. A recent Korean study looked at whether these different types of interactions result in distinctive physical and emotional benefits.

Different types of interactions stimulated a variety of brain responses, and participants reported feeling significantly less fatigued, depressed, and stressed after all the dog-related activities.

Participants in the study engaged in eight separate activities with a well-trained dog while they were wearing a cap embedded with electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes. The EEG cap made it possible for Onyoo Yoo and colleagues from Konkuk University, South Korea, to record the electrical activity in participants' brains while they interacted with a female poodle. The interactions with the dog included grooming, playing with a hand-held toy, giving treats, massaging and walking it, and taking pictures of the dog.

In addition to the EEG data, participants also recorded their subjective emotional state immediately following each activity.

The EEGs revealed that different types of interactions stimulated discrete sorts of brain activity and positively affected both relaxation and concentration. Participants also showed significantly less stress as they engaged in all the activities.

While participants played with and walked the dog, their EEGs showed an increase in the strength of their alpha-band oscillations, a brain pattern reflecting a mental state of relaxed wakefulness.

In contrast, as people in the study groomed, massaged, or played with the dog, their beta-band oscillation strength increased — a boost typically linked to heightened concentration. Participants reported feeling significantly less fatigued, depressed, and stressed after all the dog-related activities.

Not all participants were pet owners themselves, but a fondness for animals is likely to have motivated them to take part in the study, potentially biasing the results.

The fact that pets can help relieve stress has been clear for some time, but this study makes the physiological benefits of dog-human interactions more concrete and provides additional evidence for the value of canine therapy.

The authors believe that unique relationships between specific activities and their physiological effects found in the study could serve as a reference for programming targeted animal-assisted interventions in the future. As the authors say, “This study provides valuable information for elucidating the therapeutic effects and underlying mechanisms of animal-assisted interventions.”

The study is published in PLOS One.