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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

What happens to your heart when you share time with dogs? #HeartsAligned

Most dog owners will tell you that their dogs are good for them. They don't need a scientist to tell them that. But if you ask those same owners "How is your dog good for you?", they might struggle to find the words to describe what underlies the feelings they have about their animal companions.

I recently helped out with a demonstration (organised by Pedigree) that measured the heart rates of dogs and their owners, while separated and when reunited. The idea was prompted by an observation made by Dr Rollin McCraty, who monitored his son and their dog. We used non-invasive heart rate monitors on three dogs and their owners, to measure their heart rate rhythms in real time. We set the owner up on a couch, in front of cameras and lights in a studio, and kept their dog on the other side of a screen, out of sight, for less than two minutes. We then reunited the dogs and owners and encouraged the owner to relax with their dog on the couch, as they would usually do at home. The results? Well - see for yourself, here:


If you had asked me before the demonstration, what to expect, I would have told you "a reduction in heart rates for both dogs and owners over time (maybe 3-5min or so), perhaps after an slight initial increase of reunion excitement". I would not have predicted the close coherence in patterns that we observed within 1min of the reunion. Even as a dog owner and canine science researcher, who knows my dog helps me lead a healthier, happier life, I was astonished!

I genuinely hope this phenomenon is an area of human-animal interaction that attracts more research attention.

So how do dogs help our health?
It's currently unclear what processes underlie the coherence of heart rate patterns we observed between dogs and their owners during the Hearts Aligned demonstration. It's fascinating and something I'd love to research further. Although this was a small case study of just three dogs, the results were striking. 

These Australian dogs and their owners were randomly recruited through a routine casting call to the general public. The data are authentic. It was a delight to witness the beautiful relationship that Glenn, Alice and Sienna enjoyed with their dogs, Lyric, Juno and Jake. It would be interesting to explore the closeness of pattern alignment with other validated measures such as attachment (a term used in psychology that describes the strength of the emotional bond) between people and their dogs.


Glenn & Lyric, Alice & Juno, Sienna & Jake
Existing research suggests that pet owners exercise more, which of course is beneficial for our health. Pets have also been shown to improve cardiovascular health in other ways. For example, patting your dog can release oxytocin that acts to reduce levels of stress hormones, resulting in  lower blood pressure and heart rate. Additionally, research shows us that heart attack survivors and people with serious heart related abnormalities who own dogs may live longer than people with the same problems who don't have pets. There are also many studies suggesting animal companions are good for boosting our social resilience and mental health too.

The Hearts Aligned demonstration shows us that perhaps something as simple as relaxing in the company of our dogs at the end of a day of work or school, might also help to reduce our heart rate and offer our bodies a break from the stresses of everyday life.

Speaking for myself, I feel more light-hearted when in the company of my dog. He distracts me from every day stresses, promotes me to get outside and exercise, makes me laugh every day with his antics and gives me company, even when other family members are away. I think I'm a fairly typical dog owner and that others share these feelings. Physically, these things probably result in a lower heart rate and blood pressure than I'd otherwise experience, and I suspect I feel less stressed than I otherwise would.

Luckily, I was able to enjoy the relaxing effect of patting the beautiful Millie when I was invited onto the Studio 10 program to talk about how dogs can help us stress less on national TV:


Hearts Aligned is also fundraising for the national rescue organisation, Pet Rescue, who support over 950 shelters across Australia. We hope the video inspires people to share their own dog photos using the official hashtag #HeartsAligned. Each post on Facebook will trigger a $1 donation from Pedigree to Pet Rescue, up to $20,000. 

That's certainly enough evidence to make my heart feel good!

Mia

Further reading:
Cutt, HE, Knuiman, MW, Giles-Corti, B, 2008, ‘Does getting a dog increase recreational walking?’, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, vol. 5. pp. 17-27.

McConnell, AR, Brown, CM, Shoda, TM, Stayton, LE, Martin, CE, 2011, ‘Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol.101, no.6, pp.1239-1252

Headey, B, Na, F, Grabka, M, & Zheung, R, ‘Pets and human health in Australia, China and Germany: Evidence from three continents’, 2004, International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organisations Conference, Glasgow.

Nagengast, SL, Baun, MM, Megel, M, and Leibowitz, JM, 1997,‘The effects of the presence of a companion animal on physiological arousal and behavioural distress in children, Journal of Pediatric Nursing, vol. 12, pp. 323-330.

Thompson, KL, & Gullone, E, ‘Prosocial and Antisocial Behaviours in Adolescents: An Investigation into Associations with Attachment and Empathy’, Anthrozoos, vol.21, no. 2, pp. 123-137.

Wood L, Martin K, Christian H, Nathan A, Lauritsen C, Houghton S, et al. (2015) The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122085. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122085

© Mia Cobb || Do You Believe in Dog? 2016