In a recent study, researchers from Switzerland claim that petting a dog can increase brain activity in the frontal cortex, a critical region of the brain that regulates attention, working memory, problem solving, thinking, and emotional responses.
“We chose to investigate the frontal cortex because this brain area is involved in several executive functions, such as attention, working memory, and problem-solving. But it is also involved in social and emotional processes,” said study lead author Rahel Marti, a doctoral student in the division of clinical psychology and animal-assisted interventions at the University of Basel in Switzerland, in an email.
According to Marti, this study offers more proof that interactions between live people and animals during therapy may increase mental, emotional, and cognitive function.
“If patients with deficits in motivation, attention, and socioemotional functioning show higher emotional involvement in activities connected to a dog, then such activities could increase the chance of learning and of achieving therapeutic aims,” she said.
Participants in the study surrounded a puppy while wearing a scanner. They initially just observed the dog from across the room before gradually approaching him so they could pet him. They then performed the same act on a stuffed animal.
Researchers compared the two scenarios and found that when the real dog was nearby and available for a few pets, there was a stronger increase in brain activity.
This study only serves to highlight the value of therapy animals by demonstrating how much better they are than stuffed animals at stimulating cognitive and emotional functions in their human companions.