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Your Brain’s Best Friend? It Might Be Your Dog | Pupford

August 1st, 2023

Filed under Podcasts

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Feeling sluggish? Not feeling mentally alert? Struggling to make decisions?

You may just need to pet a dog…

At least, that’s what the initial findings from a group of researchers have to say!

While all research can have limitations, the findings of the effects of contact with a dog on prefrontal brain activity study are quite eye-opening.

Let’s dive right into it. ⬇️


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Quick disclaimer: I am not a researcher, scientist (I hope I don’t completely mess up information about brains, oxygen saturation, etc.), or health professional. I am just a critical consumer of research who wants to pass along what I’ve learned, along with some opinions. I highly encourage you to read the complete study on your own.

Before we look at the study, let’s define a few terms that will help make more sense of the study’s process and findings.

petting a dog can activate our prefrontal cortex which helps make decisions and think critically

Prefrontal brain activity.

This is certainly an extremely complex topic, but generally speaking, the prefrontal cortex is responsible for planning complex cognitive behavior, personality expression, decision making, and moderating social behavior.

Simply put, there are extremely important functions, decisions, and internal thoughts that are heavily influenced by the prefrontal cortex. It even helps us understand ourselves and the people around us.

Functional near-infrared spectroscopy.

Functional near-infrared spectroscopy, or fNIRS, affords a view into the brain based on blood oxygenation without the need for a big, immobile scanner. This optical imaging technique detects changes in how hemoglobin absorbs near-infrared light—usually wavelengths between 750 and 1,200 nanometers.

Simply put, it’s a device worn on the head that slightly resembles a rugby cap. It measures brain activity based on changes in blood oxygen levels.

a woman wearing an fNIRS device

Image source.

Alright, now let’s dive into how this study was conducted.


someone petting a dog

The group of researchers from Switzerland (Marti, R., Petignat, M., Marcar, V. L., Hattendorf, J., Wolf, M., Hund-Georgiadis, M., & Hediger, K.) set out to understand the changes in prefrontal brain activity when in contact with a dog.

The study had 21 healthy adults participate in 6 total sessions.

3 of the sessions included contact with a dog, and 3 of the control sessions only included contact with a plush toy.

The plush toy was a lion they introduced to participants as “Leo”. Researchers even added a warm bottle of water inside the plush toy to better mimic a dog’s warmth and fur.

The dogs used were a Jack Russell, a Goldendoodle, and a Golden Retriever (all females). The dogs were used to working with people in hospitals and similar settings, especially receiving frequent contact and pets.

Related Reading: Why Dogs Like Being Pet + Where to Pet a Dog


Each participant took part in 6 sessions, 3 that included a dog and 3 that included the plush toy. Every session followed the same format.

With the participant sitting on a couch, they did the following for 2 minutes while their brain activity was monitored with the fNIRS machine. Additionally, their heart rate and electrodermal activity (essentially sweat levels) were monitored.

  1. Staring at a blank wall (neutral)
  2. Only looking at the dog or toy from about 3 feet away (watching)
  3. Having the dog lay near them or the toy placed on their thigh (feeling)
  4. Actively petting the dog or toy (petting)
  5. Staring at a blank wall (neutral)

This was repeated 6 total times (3 with a dog and 3 with a toy).

breakdown of the methodology of the research sessions for measuring prefrontal brain activity in contact with dogs

Image source.

I will make another plea for you to read the entire study here to get a better grasp of all that was measured. It is a bit technical in regards to measuring hemoglobin concentration, oxygen saturation, and other data pieces.

And now for the best part, the results.👇


The data found through these sessions was astounding!

Again, reading the original study is recommended but I will generally use the phrase “brain activity” to denote increases in oxygen saturation, total hemoglobin, etc.

Here is an initial image provided by the study that denotes changes in brain activity generally. (The downward trending figure (B) denotes deoxygenated hemoglobin which is a sign of higher oxygen levels, essentially.)

primary stats showing changes in prefrontal brain activity

Image source.

Let’s break it down.


While there was actually increased brain activity when interacting with the plush toy, the gains in activity were significantly higher when interacting with the dog.

As the dog or toy entered the room, was next to, and then was interacted with by the participant, brain activity increased.

And while this is true, the gains in prefrontal brain activity were significantly higher when the participant interacted with a real dog compared to a toy!

Simply put, a real dog was more effective at activating brain activity than a plush toy. Not much of a surprise there.


What I found most interesting was the significant jump in brain activity when participants were actively petting the dog!

primary stats showing changes in prefrontal brain activity

As you can see on the chart above, one of the largest jumps in brain activity occurred when the participant when from being near the dog (feeling) to actively petting the dog (petting).

It seems as if there is some scientific evidence as to why we (or at least I) always want to go pet dogs that we see on the street. That petting of a good boy or girl can actually increase our brain activity.


Another piece of data that the researchers uncovered was that even after the dogs left and the participants went back to staring at a wall (neutral phase), brain activity stayed measurably higher than compared to the first neutral phase.

So, not only can petting a dog get our brain moving at that specific moment, but it can even help once the dog is gone!


learning that dogs help with brain activity can provide evidence for the need of therapy dog work

No study is perfect and no study can give us complete answers, but this study did show statistically significant evidence that petting and closely interacting with a dog can have positive effects on our brains.

But why should we care..?

In recent decades (and more so in recent years), there has been an uptick in utilizing dogs for therapeutic purposes. We previously dove into what therapy dogs actually do, and these types of studies provide huge scientific backing to the validity of this type of work.

This type of hard data and evidence can ideally provide therapy dog groups with a better ability to secure funding, expand operations, and overall better serve people worldwide.

But there’s more than that… Think about some of these ideas (some already are happening, and others may not be realistic but are worth thinking about) on how this type of study could expand how we utilize dogs for greater purposes.

  • Testing centers (especially for things like the ACT, SAT, etc) having dogs for test takers to engage with before taking a test
  • Using therapy dogs for students and children with low social skills and confidence in the classroom
  • Pairing therapy dogs with actual counseling/therapy sessions for those battling things like depression or anxiety to hopefully gain a better sense of self and better analyze their thoughts and feelings
  • Corporations and offices allowing more dogs into workplaces to help boost productivity, creativity and collaboration
  • I won’t get too political, but maybe if lawmakers and politicians were to pet dogs before doing whatever the h*ck it is that they do there would be better decisions made as an outcome 😉
  • Pairing classrooms for students with developmental disabilities with a class dog to help improve learning and social interactions
  • Petting a dog while setting personal goals and or writing a business plan
  • Letting middle schoolers & high schoolers pet a dog before heading into a dance or social event to increase social awareness and confidence
  • A DMV with dogs… There’s gotta be something there 😅

Those are just some ideas. And while I can’t say that every application is realistic, I hope it gets your thoughts moving as to how we can better utilize dogs in improving the world around us.

The bottom line is that dogs are amazing creatures that we are truly lucky to have in our lives and further research is certainly needed to better understand our relationship with them.

And we should treat, raise, and train dogs with that level of respect in mind. 🙂


petting a dog can activate certain positive parts of our brain

Multiple times as I was writing this article I got distracted and felt “stuck”. So, I tested the theories in this study and took a minute break to pet my dogs.

While I didn’t suddenly get a lightning-bolt-style-creative-boost as you’d see in cartoons, I did feel like I was better able to focus and process my thoughts.

This study painted statistically significant evidence that interacting with, and especially petting, a dog can boost our brain activity.

So, the next time you’re needing a confidence boost, are cramming for a test, or just want to get your thoughts moving, snuggle your dog!

How have you seen your dog help your personal life? Let me know in the comments!

PS- If I misconstrued or misinterpreted any scientific information in this article, please let me know.


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