Stress research is a huge part of part of health psychology. It has been shown that it is a large contributor to heart disease, which is currently the number one killer in the United States. However, there are ways to protect ourselves from stress, with one of them being social support. Individuals who report strong social support systems live longer, have better heart attack outcomes, and report a greater sense of over all well being.
When we think of social support, we probably picture our closest friends and family. But what about our pets? Research shows that dog owners report better cardiovascular health than non-dog owners, but there may be a problem with this finding. What if dog owners have better cardiovascular health just because they walk their dog, thus giving them more exercise? This is a compelling argument, but today I will be summarizing an article that examined whether dogs can actually improve our stress reactivity. Stress reactivity is how much our body responds to a stressor; the more stressed we are, the more reactive of a stress response we have.
For this study, researchers recruited 294 college students to come into the lab and participate in the Tier Social Stress Task (a classic stress paradigm). For this task, participants were asked to give a five-minute “job talk” to three confederates. “Confederate” is a fancy term for someone on the research team who receives extensive training to act as someone else; in this case someone trained in non-verbal communication. Participants had five minutes to prepare, and then had to give the talk. They stood a few feet from the confederates, and spoke into a microphone without being able to use any notes. They were also video recorded for “future analyses” (this never actually happened, they were just made to believe it would). Confederates were trained to give looks of disapproval, and to insist participants to continue if they stopped talking before the five-minute mark.
After the talk, participants were then asked to continuously subtract 17 from 2023 until they reach 0. They had five minutes to complete this, and had to start over if a mistake was made. For these two tasks, participants were divided into one of three different groups. They were either alone, with a friend, or with a dog. The dog was a seven year old retriever and sat out of reach (but easily within view) of the participant during the tasks.
Before I get into the results, I want to briefly explain how stress physiology is measured in the lab. When we are presented with a stressor, a part of our brain called the HPA axis releases this stuff called cortisol. So the more stressed we are, the more cortisol our body releases.
Participants in the dog social support condition had lower levels of cortisol than those in the human social support and alone conditions! In other words, participants in the dog condition were less stressed than the other participants. This finding, at least to me, is pretty remarkable.
Why is this finding important? Two reasons immediately came to mind. First, we now have a reason to love our dogs even more. Beyond giving us more of a reason to spend more time exercising, we may actually respond to stressors more efficiently. A mitigated stress response leads to better cardiovascular outcomes and greater life longevity. Second, this compliments the idea of dog therapy programs. These programs provide trained dogs to people in hospitals, nursing homes, retirement homes, and disaster areas. Individuals in these situations experience great stress, and having a dog by their side during these times could greatly impact their health.
Polheber, J. P., & Matchock, R. L. (2014). The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and
heart rate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends. Journal of
behavioral medicine, 37(5), 860-867.