Petting a dog lights up the part of the brain that regulates and processes social and emotional interactions, a new study has found.

But the dog has to be real – it doesn’t work as well with stuffed animals. Nor can you just look at a dog – you have to pet it. 

“Prefrontal brain activity in healthy subjects increased with a rise in interactional closeness with a dog or a plush animal, but especially in contact with the dog the activation is stronger,” the researchers said.

“This indicates that interactions with a dog might activate more attentional processes and elicit stronger emotional arousal than comparable nonliving stimuli.

“Our results also suggest that a relationship with the dog might be a crucial factor. The results are clinically relevant for patients with deficits in motivation, attention, and socioemotional functioning. 

“Integrating animals into therapeutic interventions might therefore be a promising approach for improving emotional involvement and attention.

The study, published Friday in PLOS One, doesn’t mention whether cats work equally well. Nor is it clear if it works on people who don’t like, or are afraid of, dogs. Not having a phobia was a prerequisite for the 21 human participants in the study, which was carried out in Switzerland.

The researchers say the findings could help develop more effective “animal-assisted interventions”, such as the ‘puppy rooms’ found at some universities.