How Pictures of Happy Dogs Affect Our Brains and Mood

If you’ve ever lost hours of your life scrolling through pictures of happy pups on social media (I know I have), you’ve doubtless wondered how pictures of happy dogs affect our brains and mood. In fact, pictures of happy dogs can have a powerful effect on us.

Looking at pictures of dogs loving life isn’t just a waste of time. These pictures really can make us happy. They may even give us emotions similar to the feelings we get when we fall in love or look at our children.

Here are some fascinating facts about how pictures of happy dogs affect us. 

How dogs affect our moods

At this point, the positive effect of being around dogs is well-documented. Studies have found that being around and touching dogs activates oxytocin in the brain, which improves our mood, makes us more social, and enhances our chances of having positive interactions with the people and animals around us.

Being with dogs reduces all kinds of stress indicators including cortisol production, blood pressure, and heart rate. Furthermore, people report feeling less fear and anxiety when around dogs. Dogs have also been tied to improved cardiovascular conditions. 

The positive memories that we have associated with dogs due to our positive interactions with them can be brought back by a picture of a happy dog. Suddenly we are back in the state of reduced stress and feeling more social; in other words, we regain the positive feelings that we have when we are with dogs.

This may help to explain why sharing pictures of happy dogs on social media is so popular and why it is easy to get lost in endless pictures of our favorite breeds enjoying life. 

Makes us think of babies

People especially like looking at pictures of puppies and young dogs. We understand their cuteness as being similar to our own babies. Features that we tend to enjoy include eyes that are large compared to the rest of the face, lifted eyebrows that increase expressiveness, along with other features that mimic human babies. 

Studies have found that humans are more likely to adopt dogs from a shelter if the dog has a more infantile appearance. When looking at the evolution of dog breeds, we can see that many small breeds, and even some large breeds, have been bred to maintain a more infantile expression throughout their lifespan.

The sight of a human infant, whether in pictures or in real life, causes a nearly automatic reaction in adults that inherently creates positive emotions. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that dogs that make us think of babies could cause us to feel strong positive emotions as well.

This is supported by the prevalence of dog breeds popular on social media that have an infantile expression. The number of Instagram feeds for French bulldogs, pugs, and other dogs that look like human babies greatly outnumber the percentage of these dogs actually in the population. It seems that people would rather follow and share pictures of these dogs than other breeds. 

Our reaction to infantile dog breeds is so strong that people continue breeding more dramatic features into these dogs, even as we understand they cause physical problems. Brachycephalic breeds with short noses tend to have forward-facing eyes and a flat face that looks more childlike, but this means that their entire face is compressed, leading to breathing problems along with other issues. This has not done anything to stop our obsession with these adorable breeds. 

How we respond emotionally to pictures

Humans have a powerful emotional response to photographs. Studies have found that memorable and emotional images evoke a strong amygdala response. Your amygdala responds especially to photographs that have significance or relevance for you. You are much more likely to remember a picture if it triggers an emotional response when you see it.

Pictures can trigger the full range of emotions in us, from fear to anger to love and the feeling we get when we see something cute. The power of a photo can be proven in how well you remember it.

Pictures of dogs, especially dogs that remind you of a dog you’ve had a positive experience with (like a childhood dog or the dog you have at home), are likely to trigger a strong response in your amygdala and stick in your brain. 

Pictures of our dogs evoke a response similar to pictures of our own children 

We think about dogs as being our fur children. It isn’t unusual for a dog lover to pull out a smartphone or wallet full of pictures of their pup, just as a parent would pull out pictures of human children. Many pet parents would feel very offended to have it suggested that their pups were anything less than members of the family. They deserve every bit of care (and spoiling) as human kids. 

In fact, a study found that when women’s brains were scanned with an MRI as they looked at pictures of either their own child or their own dog, areas that are important for affiliation, reward, emotion, and social interaction all showed increased activity whether they were looking at their child or their dog. This indicates that the feelings we have about our dogs aren’t just cultural or exaggerated, but they have a scientifically established biological foundation.  

Puppy pictures have a more profound effect

Looking at happy puppy pictures really gives us a surge of melt-your-heart happiness. This is known as the baby schema effect, which theorizes that a surge of dopamine and oxytocin is released when we look at puppies in real life or in a picture. Something about looking at puppies just makes us giddy with love and affection. 

This may also be more highly triggered by dogs that look like puppies all their life, such as toy breeds. In fact, when we look at pictures of cute puppies, we may actually have a feeling similar to falling in love. This may account for some of the obsession we have with puppy pictures. I’m probably not the only one who can spend hours looking at photos of puppies at play. 

If you want a new dog, you may have even more powerful reactions to pictures of puppies. This will prove especially true if you are searching for a new puppy and see photos of the breed that you hope to purchase. 

Pictures of your own dog as a puppy may also have powerful effects. It will bring back memories of how your life was different when your dog was young. You’ll likely remember the special feelings you had for your dog as a puppy when you were still getting to know each other. 

Memories associated with a particular breed or situation

Pictures associated with strong emotions, like the way we feel about happy dogs, are more likely to trigger a memory. You may remember a dog that you knew when you were a child or a neighbor dog that barked at you through the fence. The way your brain responds may depend on how you felt about the situation; however, pictures of happy dogs are likely to trigger strong memories and corresponding emotions.

If you’ve known several dogs of a particular breed, you may feel happy memories. Accompanying nostalgia rises as you recall your time with these dogs and their passage from your life. Looking at pictures of dogs that look like a dog you remember can easily take you down “Memory Lane” for hours. You may follow social media groups that feature dogs like an old dog of yours for this simple reason. 

Do pictures of us affect dogs?

As we’re thinking about how pictures of dogs affect us, the question must surely arise, how do pictures of us affect dogs? Studies have found that dogs show a statistically relevant preference for looking at familiar human faces in photographs.

This backs up the everyday experience of people using the Internet or home cameras to communicate with their dogs. In fact, an entire industry has developed around home cameras in which your dog can see and even hear you. Some cameras actually allow you to toss treats to your dog for good behavior. 

Summary

Pictures of happy dogs make us happy. They may even make us feel emotions similar to romantic love or the way we feel about our children. Pictures of puppies have an especially intense effect. Pictures of our own dog or a breed we’ve known may trigger powerful feelings of kinship and affection. It can also trigger strong memories.

In all, it is pretty amazing how pictures of happy dogs affect our brains and mood. It really shines a light on how important dogs are to us, to where we are deeply affected just by looking at pictures of dogs. 


Coral Dawn Drake

My fiance, Justin, and I live with our two little dogs, Sofie and Lisa, and three chickens in Gainesville, Florida. Justin and I are homebodies who occasionally enjoy a good adventure. I love living in Gainesville, and I love Florida. I can’t imagine anywhere more beautiful or strange than this hot, marshy place where people are guaranteed to be nothing other than themselves. Justin is always reminding me to relax. Relaxing doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m always busy. Making art or editing photos, digging in the yard or trying to grow some new moss or plant. There never seems to be enough time to do everything that I want to do. Life is so, so full and I want to plunge into every second of it.