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Vagus Nerve

4 Reasons Why Time Spent With a Dog Feels So Good

The benefits of physical contact, play, and more.

Key points

  • Dogs can help with co-regulation of your nervous system.
  • Polyvagal theory explains how dogs can be a part of emotional regulation strategies to help individuals move out of heightened anxious states.
  • Playing with dogs has been shown to release oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding and relaxation.
Avi Naim/Unsplash
Source: Avi Naim/Unsplash

By Caroline Vasquez, MA, MEd

Ever notice how you feel when you’re greeted by your dog at the end of a long, difficult day? That sense of warmth, love, and unconditional acceptance as expressed through a wagging tail, a happy prance, and lots of snuggles? What is it about your canine best friend that brings joy and calm? Dogs—both house pets and trained therapy dogs—can help people soothe their nervous system and regulate their emotions. Polyvagal theory gives us a good explanation as to why and how that is.

Polyvagal theory was developed by neuroscientist and psychologist Stephen Porges in 1994, and over the past several decades has been used to explain how the human nervous system responds to stress, trauma, and various emotional states. According to polyvagal theory, emotional dysregulation—the inability to manage your emotional states or to control feelings of sadness, anxiety, or angeris caused by an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (ANS), specifically in the function of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is a major component of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates the body's internal organs and is involved in emotional and social behavior.

Polyvagal theory suggests that the autonomic nervous system has three distinct states: the dorsal vagal state, the sympathetic arousal state, and the ventral vagal state. Each of these states has its own set of physiological responses ranging from immobilization and dissociation in the dorsal vagal state, to panic and overwhelm in the sympathetic arousal state, to connected and engaged in the safe and social state of ventral vagal. Regulating one’s emotions can be particularly difficult when we are feeling stuck in the dorsal or sympathetic states. Your dog (or a friend or neighbor's dog!), or a therapy dog, can be a part of emotional regulation strategies to help individuals move from a state of heightened sympathetic arousal or dorsal vagal state to a more regulated state of ventral vagal.

So that feeling when you walk through the door and are greeted by your furry friend? You aren’t just imagining it.

Interacting with a therapy dog has been found to reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, decrease physiological arousal (such as heart rate and blood pressure), and improve social skills (Thelwell, ELR, 2019). It's no wonder that being greeted by your dog when you come home from a challenging day or interacting with a therapy dog in a school setting can prove to bring about feelings of calm and connection.

Dogs can provide a nonjudgmental presence and promote feelings of acceptance and unconditional positive regard, which can be especially important for those struggling with emotional dysregulation.

Trained therapy dogs in particular can also be helpful for individuals with a history of trauma, as they can offer a sense of safety and security.

Dogs offer us a variety of interactions that can aid in the regulation of the nervous system.

Here are four ways that connecting with a dog can make you feel better:

  1. Physical contact: When you pet a dog, hold a dog, or allow a dog to snuggle up on your lap or beside you on the sofa, your body releases oxytocin, which is a hormone that helps to reduce stress and anxiety. This physical contact can help you feel more relaxed and calm.
  2. Exercise: Dogs are often active and playful. Spending time with a dog often involves physical activity, such as throwing a ball, playing a game, or going for a walk. Whether you are running a trail with your best buddy or playing frisbee in the yard, exercise is known to help reduce stress and anxiety by releasing endorphins, which are natural mood-boosting chemicals.
  3. Mindfulness: Intentional interactions with a dog, such as playing, brushing or petting, or working on tricks require you to be present in the moment. Being present and focused on the activity at hand can help you practice mindfulness. Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety.
  4. Social connection: Dogs are social animals and can provide a sense of companionship and connection. Spending time with a dog can help you feel less lonely and isolated, which can help reduce stress and anxiety.

So the next time your dog makes you happy and helps you feel grounded, know that there is a reason for it! Playing with a dog can provide a number of benefits for your mental health and well-being, and can be a great way to calm your nervous system. Interacting with dogs has been shown to have a calming effect on humans, likely due to the release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding and relaxation. By learning how to regulate our own nervous systems through interactions with dogs, we can improve our overall health and well-being.

Facebook image: Michelle D. Milliman/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: Amorn Suriyan/Shutterstock


Alliance of Therapy Dogs. “Benefits of Therapy Dogs in a Mental Health Institution.” Alliance of Therapy Dogs Inc., 21 July 2022,….

Porges, S. W. (2011). The polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication, and self-regulation. W W Norton & Co.

Thelwell ELR. Paws for Thought: A Controlled Study Investigating the Benefits of Interacting with a House-Trained Dog on University Students Mood and Anxiety. Animals (Basel). 2019 Oct 21;9(10):846. doi: 10.3390/ani9100846. PMID: 31640244; PMCID: PMC6826684.

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