The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and heart rate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends

Abstract

Limited research has addressed how social support in the form of a pet can affect both sympathetic and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal reactivity in response to a psychological challenge. The present study examined the effects of social support on salivary cortisol and heart rate (HR). Forty-eight participants were randomly assigned to three different conditions (human friend, novel dog, or control). All participants completed the Trier Social Stress Test and provided cortisol, HR, and State-Trait Anxiety Inventory measures. For participants paired with a dog, overall cortisol levels were attenuated throughout the experimental procedure, and HR was attenuated during the Trier Social Stress Test. For all groups, state anxiety increased after the Trier Social Stress Test, and HR during the Trier Social Stress Test was a predictor of cortisol. These results suggest that short-term exposure to a novel dog in an unfamiliar setting can be beneficial. They also suggest a possible mechanism for the beneficial effect associated with affiliation with pets.

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Acknowledgments

We wish to thank Lois Fogle and Jazz from Fogle’s Dog Training and Boarding, Ashville, Pennsylvania. We also want to acknowledge our research assistants for their diligent and unyielding dedication: Shawn Robinson; Rebecca Harshbarger; Evelyn Erickson; Theresa Patterson; Victor-Stanley A. Szcepkowicz; Brittany Werkmeister; Chris Lehman and Trevor Aurandt-Dangel. Funding for this study was provided by a Student Initiated Research Grant from the Research Advisory Committee at The Pennsylvania State University, Altoona.

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The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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Correspondence to Robert L. Matchock.

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Polheber, J.P., Matchock, R.L. The presence of a dog attenuates cortisol and heart rate in the Trier Social Stress Test compared to human friends. J Behav Med 37, 860–867 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-013-9546-1

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Keywords

  • Cortisol
  • Dogs
  • Heart rate
  • Social support
  • Trier Social Stress Test