Many cultures have their own theories and explanations for the sacred bond between humans and animals, especially the bond between humans and dogs. Dogs have been incorporated into human lives for centuries as helping agents in survival, mental and physical health and spiritual healing. Now, researchers have scientific proof that dog ownership can make people happy.
Archaeologists suggest that this human-canine bond which began with the domestication of wolves 14,000 years ago is the result of a mutual understanding and co-evolutionary process centered around both human and canine’s need for food, shelter and safety. Dogs were essential in hunting for food, keeping humans warm during cold nights, and for warding off predators.
According to the American Pet Products Association's 2017-2018 National Pet Owners Survey:
Currently, pet ownership stands at 68% of all U.S. households. With the U.S. Census reporting 124.587 million households, the number of pet owning households is 84.6 million.
Now that we no longer have to hunt for survival, we have blankets and jackets for warmth, and we are not in constant danger, we have kept dogs around because we have discovered that they bring us happiness. In fact, dog ownership is believed to increase our personal happiness by improving four different aspects of our lives from childhood to our golden years.
4 Ways Dog Ownership Makes People Happy
based on science
The research sited in this article comes from a study entitled Teachers' Pets and Why They Have Them: An Investigation of the Human Animal Bond by Sara Staats, Kelli Sears and Loretta Pierfelice. The study was published in the August 2006 addition of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology.
The study questioned a random sample of pet owners to find their reason for owning a pet. The study found five dominant reasons for pet ownership and some other interesting facts.
For example, women were more likely than men to report that they owned a pet for social support. Men were more likely to report owning a dog for more practical reasons like exercise or protection.
Here is the breakdown of the top four reasons stated for owning a pet and what they tell us about our canine companions.
1 Physical Fitness
It may seem obvious that owning a dog encourages physical activity, especially if the dog is still a puppy. Unlike many domesticated animals such as cats that spend much of their time lounging or fish that swim around in confinement, dogs need to run, jump, and play. They prefer to do it with their human companion.
When playing with your dog, you find joy in the physical activity but you may not be aware of the science at work. Aside from the fun of running back and forth with your four-legged friend, the physical activity is increasing the level of endorphins released by your brain.
Endorphins are a group of hormones produced in the brain and nervous system that— when released— activate separate parts of the brain called “opiate receptors,” which are responsible for the “natural high” that we feel from exercise and other means of physical activity such as doggy playtime.
2 Social Support
There is a reason that dogs have long been referred to as “man’s best friend.” They may not be able to verbally communicate with us but they are able to provide basic companionship in the form of unconditional love.
Unlike humans, the only species believed to have the ability to think critically about the world around them, dogs do not typically discriminate against humans. They will always be excited to greet their owners and remain by their sides. People frequently enter and exit our lives, but dogs maintain a sense of loyalty.
3 Stress Reduction
The very act of petting a dog can provide a calming effect during times of stress and is believed to either reduce stress or provide a temporary escape from thinking about a potentially stressful situation. Karen Allen, a Clinical Pharmacology professor at the University of New York at Buffalo, conducted two separate studies to examine the effects of dog ownership on stress with respect to possible gender differences.
In her first study, she monitored women’s blood pressure (increased blood pressure being a symptom of stress) in the presence of a female friend versus in the presence of a dog. The results indicate that women’s blood pressure increased in the presence of a female friend, signifying induced stress, whereas their blood pressure decreased in the presence of a dog, signifying relaxation.
Following this study, Allen conducted a second study in which she monitored the blood pressure of both men and women in the presence of a spouse, a friend, or a dog. Producing similar results, the study suggests that both men and women experience higher stress in the presence of a spouse or friend compared to being in the presence of a dog.
4 Well-Being of Aging Dog Owners
In a 1983 study by Marcia G. Ory and Evelyn L. Goldberg from the National Institute of Aging, over a thousand women dog owners and non-dog-owners between the ages of 65 and 75 were surveyed regarding basic demographic information and their overall happiness.
The results suggest that the level of happiness among dog owners depended significantly on the level of attachment to their dog and their socioeconomic status.
Those with a combined strong attachment to their dog and a high socioeconomic status rated their happiness the highest. An easy way to remember this is to consider that greater financial stability means more money to buy dog food and toys, which means that your dog may perceive you as their alpha leader and a stronger attachment may develop.
FURTHER READING: The Science Behind Oxytocin and Puppy Love
Do dogs make people happy or do happy people own dogs? While there is an abundance of studies with results suggesting that dogs improve the quality of life for humans and increase their overall level of happiness, there are still a number of researchers in the psychology field that are shaking their heads, referring to this phenomenon as the “pet effect.”
The pet effect is a theory that refers to the belief that living with a domesticated animal can enhance health, mental well-being, and longevity when solid scientific evidence may still be lacking. One limitation of most studies concerning dog ownership and happiness is that they are not often true cause-and-effect experiments but rather suggest a possible link between dog ownership and happiness.
Finally, there has been some concern regarding experimenter bias and a lack of objectivity when considering the results of studies. But, who would not want to believe that dogs contribute to our happiness?