Can dogs really stop us eating chocolate?
I recently met Kristin Finkbeiner, a PhD student at ISAZ, human-animal interactions conference in Barcelona. Kristin’s research immediately intrigued me as it involved dogs… and chocolate! Not dogs eating chocolate, as that would be bad. Instead looking at the positive effects dogs have on human stress levels. I asked her to explain some of her work to us…
Guest post by Kristin Finkbeiner
All pet owners intrinsically know that there is something special to the human-animal bond… why else would we choose to share our living quarters and limited financial resources with a biologically unmatched being that cannot verbally express their gratitude?
“Because, they love us and we love them, that is why” I hear a lot of you saying in agreement. And while this very well may be true, the scientific community has tremendous qualms with defining love, and what it actually entails. While true feelings of care may exist between both pet and owner, when you break down these feel-good sensations and try to analyse this relationship at a primal level, what is the most accurate portrayal of the picture? (i.e. maybe your pet ‘loves’ your treatment of them, maybe your pet enjoys your presence by means of protection and food security, or maybe even more harsh, your pet uses your love for them to manipulate your actions, snack delivery and petting routine…. so on, so on).
“Is it possible to gain the same ‘benefits’ from watching an adorable video of playing puppies that you gain from petting your own pet dog for 10 minutes?”
Now, my research piece is not a debate in defining the love for inter-species relationships, however important that perception may be. This is more so a project looking at our exposure to animals, specifically dogs, and how that exposure promotes wellbeing within the human onlooker/interactee. There has to be something that is triggering this undying affection, or more so, a biological reaction that links us to other species on a skin-to-skin level. Throughout my research, I am exploring the concept of wellbeing and seeing how it manifests through physical measures. Is it possible to gain the same ‘benefits’ from watching an adorable video of playing puppies that you gain from petting your own pet dog for 10 minutes? (Note: when I mention benefits, I am often referring to the psycho-physio-social benefits gained). Therefore, what type of benefits are your mind receiving do to this exposure? How is your body reacting in a positive way? How are your social skills improved?
Animal therapy has been rapidly applied in clinical settings, due to the overwhelming positive benefits elicited from it (i.e. happiness, companionship, stress reduction, heart rate reduction, etc.). Dogs are often employed in animal therapy settings due to their likelihood of positive reciprocal interactions (that is, dogs are typically more likely to give and willingly receive affection than any other domesticated breed). Because of this, I wanted to know if benefits received through animal therapy may compare to other forms of passive therapies, such as reading and meditating.
The first part of my study involved an investigation of beliefs and pre-existing stereotypes towards dog breeds, which was namely taken part by American, New Zealand and UK citizens. The consensus showed that the dog breeds most typically associated with positive stereotypes based on temperament, energy level and intelligence were the average-sized, working dogs that often find themselves in the typical family setting (e.g. Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, German Shepherds, etc.) Because of this – and the fact that the Labrador Retriever is among the most commonly owned Dog in both America and New Zealand– I decided to use Labradors in this therapy intervention (one for each of the 2 focus groups). Below, you can see our handsome boys Zach and Titan.
For simplification of the experimental procedures, I was to expose participants to a social stressing situation (consensual of course), and see how well they recoup based on the type of therapy intervention they experience – dog interaction, reading or meditating. Participants agreed to the conditions of the study, agreed to be completely honest where necessary (in order to induce social anxiety) and agreed to have no allergies or fears of dogs.
By means of inducing social stress, 52 participants (separated into 2 focus groups) were told to recite, in turn, a personally embarrassing story (2 mins) and attempt verbal arithmetic problems (1 min) out loud in front of the group. Immediately after each speech, a participant’s heartrate (HR) was recorded and participants were asked to complete a questionnaire rating their experience and stress levels. This was repeated for every participant. After experiencing the stress component, participants were randomly placed into one of three conditions (dog petting, reading or meditating). Participants engaged in these therapy groups silently for 10 mins. Afterwards, HR stress levels were once again assessed, this time including questions related to their specific therapy conditions.
Findings from data analysis shows that ratings of positive affect (i.e. happiness, contentedness, etc.) increased significantly after dog interaction, in comparison to participants that experienced the other therapy conditions. Similarly, ratings of negative affect (i.e. stress, anger, anxiety, etc.) were reduced after interaction with the dogs, in comparison to other conditions. However, HR decrease after the therapy sessions in comparison to the recordings after the social stressors, by all methods of therapy (though this may be due to the length in time between stressor and therapy condition).
“Happiness increased after dog interaction.”
While I was only able to assess a small group of students for use of basic therapy interventions, the findings still hold important relevance, as dog interaction can buffer stress and help to reduce heart rate after a social stressor, at least in the short term. More insight needs to be developed for animal therapies, looking at length of exposure, differences between exposure to certain breeds and different types of interaction (i.e. talking, walking, playing, etc.). In further studies, I have administered a second stressor post-interaction with the dog to see if the positive affect experienced during the break was able to prevent future stress responses, or dull them in comparison to other conditions.
Following up on that idea (and currently in the works), I have been looking at positive dog exposure through videos and interaction, and seeing how it effects someone who is experiencing a lot of stress and mental focus during a computer task. Specifically, this is being researched with participants who have been screened to be ‘emotional eaters’ (eat more when presented with an emotionally stressing event). The experiment is broken up into 2 blocks of task performance, and participants are given chocolate during the computer task to consume if desired. Participants are given readings of HR, and are asked to complete a baseline questionnaire looking at current stress and hunger levels.
Between the 2 task blocks (and the only time a participant was unable to consume chocolate), participants were randomly placed in a break activity condition for 10 minutes. The possible breaks included interacting with a dog, watching a video of a dog, watching a video of a numeral countdown or the control condition of experiencing continuous tasks on the computer. After this break, participants resumed the computer task and were able to eat chocolate again if they wished. After the task completed, HR, stress levels and follow up questions about their break were recorded. Dog exposure (both through videos and through physical interaction) showed to once again buffer against stress in comparison to the other conditions, and this time restrict the intake of emotional related eating – which is great news to chocolate lovers everywhere!
“Dog exposure (both through videos and through physical interaction) showed to once again buffer against stress, and this time restrict the intake of emotional related eating.”
My ongoing investigation into the intricacies of dog exposure continues, exploring different avenues of priming participants with dog stimuli and seeing the effects produced on human wellbeing. No matter if you are a dog lover, a dog hater or could care less – research on “man’s best friend” remains integral as they continue to grow as functioning members of society and exist ever presently in our lives.
Kristin Finkbeiner is a PhD Candidate at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, NZ who hails from Ohio, USA. She studies the impacts of exposure to dogs on many different human wellbeing facets, including attention retention, higher emotional processing, and increased positive affect. Alongside dogs, she is a lover of all animals. You can follow her research on Research Gate, https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Kristin_Finkbeiner .