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Spending time with a dog can be good for your health

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Some people like to say, if you need a friend, get a dog. As NPR's Maria Godoy reports, even brief friendly interactions with dogs can be good for our health.

MARIA GODOY, BYLINE: I started pondering the power of dogs during one of my daily strolls around my neighborhood.

Hi, how are you doing? Can I have a lick?

This dog, a tiny thing named Freddie D (ph), is happy to comply with a sloppy kiss in my hand.

Oh, look at that.

For me, it's a silly moment of joy.

You are so cute. You are so cute.

I always walk away from these canine exchanges feeling just a bit more relaxed and happy. And that got me wondering, could these short interactions petting other people's pooches actually be good for me?

NANCY GEE: Absolutely. Animals are beneficial to our mental and physical health.

GODOY: That's Nancy Gee. She's a professor of psychiatry and director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University. She says in recent years, research on the health benefits of dogs has exploded. And the quality of the evidence has improved. She says there's growing evidence that levels of the stress hormone cortisol drop in people after just five to 20 minutes spent interacting with dogs, even if it's not their pet.

GEE: We see increases in oxytocin, so that feel-good kind of bonding hormone also increases. And, you know, what I love about this research is that it's a two-way street. We see the same thing in the dogs. So the dog's oxytocin also increases when they interact with a human.

GODOY: Now, of course, not everyone's a dog person. And the therapy dogs used in research are screened for friendliness and good behavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

GODOY: There's also evidence that brief bouts of puppy love may also help us think better. Gee collaborated on a study that found school-aged kids who had regular short exchanges with pups in the classroom had reduced stress and improvements in their ability to stay on task and block out distractions. And Gee says those benefits lingered.

GEE: We actually saw that one month later. And there's some evidence that it may exist at six months later.

GODOY: So what is it about hanging out with dogs that helps us chill out and focus? Megan Mueller studies the psychology of human-animal relationships at Tufts University. She says dogs prompt us to experience the world more like they do.

MEGAN MUELLER: Animals, and dogs in particular, live in the moment. They're experiencing their environment with wonder and awe all the time. And they're not bringing what happened to them earlier in the day or what they're thinking about in the future. They're there right now.

GODOY: Mueller says watching dogs sniff the grass or explore the world around them cues us to pay more attention, too.

MUELLER: They sort of pull you out of your phone and into whatever environment that you're in.

GODOY: She says there's some evidence that the act of actually touching a dog might be an important part of their calming effect. One study done in Canada found that college students reported less stress and reduced feelings of homesickness after brief interactions with dogs. And that effect was much bigger in those who actually got to pet the animals. She's currently running a study that's finding similar results.

MUELLER: Physical touch might impact our nervous system in a way that's beneficial.

GODOY: But it's not just how we cue into dogs that makes the relationship special. Nancy Gee of Virginia Commonwealth University says over thousands of years of domestication, dogs have developed a wondrous ability to read us.

GEE: They really can connect with another human being. And they do it in a very unassuming way.

GODOY: And they do it without the ability to use words. As my dog-loving 9-year-old recently told me, dogs have a way of speaking to our hearts.

Maria Godoy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Maria Godoy is a senior science and health editor and correspondent with NPR News. Her reporting can be heard across NPR's news shows and podcasts. She is also one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.