Your relationship with your dog is vital, science shows
We've long said that dogs are man's best friend — but studies finally back it up.
Between the lines: It's not just association — the idea that dog people might already be happier — but some causation is at play, says Jen Golbeck, University of Maryland professor.
- Golbeck, who wrote a book on the topic, says that "incredibly biological, really tightly controlled studies" have been able to tease out dogs' unique mental and physical benefits for humans.
- And because you're going to ask: Some of this research applies to cats.
Studies suggest that dogs help their humans with…
Moving more, and being happier doing it.
- Walking with your dog is good for your bond, and being more bonded makes you want to be outside together more — which is good for your mental health.
- Compared to going it alone, working out with a dog amplifies the mood-boosting effects of exercise, per one study. And, unsurprisingly, people with dogs were four times more likely to get the recommended 2.5 hours of aerobic exercise a week — and 14 times more likely to report walking for recreation.
Offering social support.
- It's a given that dogs are confidants and companions. But studies are also helping us understand how dogs can reduce loneliness and chronic mental health illness.
Lowering stress levels and blood pressure.
- Petting or snuggling with a dog offers a boost of feel-good hormones and a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, similar to hugging a human.
- Research also suggests that spending several minutes with dogs improves children's and students' moods.
Improving overall health — possibly including sleep.
- A look at 10 months of pet ownership found that adopting dogs led to less difficulty sleeping and a decrease in health issues like indigestion and headaches. Another study found that having a pet meant people were less likely to go to the doctor or be on heart medication.
Boosting immune response and recovery from heart events.
- Exposure to dogs reduces young people's risk of developing allergies, and affects the development and response of immune systems, research has found.
- When it comes to heart disease or a heart attack, research suggests dog owners' risk of dying is 31% less than those without pups. Also, people with pets are more likely to complete rehab and survive for longer than someone without a pet.
Sensing medical problems and changes.
- Some dogs might smell when a human has low blood sugar, is about to have a seizure or if COVID-19 is present.
- Relevant to every human: Dogs have shown they're able to tell when people are stressed.
Reality check: Humans are good for dogs, too.
- Not only do dogs also get oxytocin by interacting with us, but dogs' brains light up at the sound and scent of their humans — the same way babies' brains do, fMRI machines have demonstrated.
Yes, but "there are certainly people who get a dog and don't have a great experience," Golbeck says.
- Golbeck, who rescues golden retrievers, knows that many dogs given as gifts for Christmas are returned by the next holiday season because "nobody trained them, [so] they're super cute for three months, and then they turn into velociraptors for about three years," she says.
- Before adopting a canine, "People should… make sure they have the time and energy and know what they want out of a dog," she says.
Thought bubble: One of the reasons I adopted my dog Roman (in the photo), is that I hoped he'd be a consistent running buddy and great cuddler. He is.
- What I didn't anticipate was that he also would be a mindfulness mentor for me, someone who's never taken to meditation.
- Roman encourages me to appreciate the hand-shaped tree in our park (that he pees on), the fleeting shadow a butterfly makes on the grass (that he chases) and the growing jasmine on our neighbor's fence (that he stops to smell).
- He also reminds me to step away from my desk and go outside — like he got me to do twice since starting to write this story.