Any dog lover will say that life just seems better with a dog. Dogs keep us company, entertain us, comfort us, protect us, and seem to make life fuller and more complete. Who else is as happy to see you when you come home or is willing to binge-watch TV with you on a Saturday night? We have anecdotal evidence of how dogs enrich our lives, and science backs up the evidence that owning a dog is good for us, psychologically and physically. Here are just a few of the ways dogs take care of their humans.
- Dogs relieve stress. According to a study conducted more than 30 years ago by Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania and Alan Beck of Purdue, playing with a dog or even just petting a familiar dog lowers blood pressure and heart rate, slows breathing, and relaxes muscle tension almost immediately. That study is backed up by more recent ones that show a reduced level of stress hormones in blood chemistry, even in people who are candidates for blood pressure medication.
- Dogs are good for your heart. Literally. The “American Journal of Cardiology” published research about a study of 369 heart attack patients one year after they were released from the hospital. One year later, pet owners had a much higher rate of survival than non-pet owners. The research concluded that the bond between humans and dogs reduces stress, which is a major cause of cardiovascular problems.
- Dogs make us happy. In fact, even just looking at a dog can make you happier. A study in Japan in 2009 found that just staring into your dog’s eyes raises your level of oxytocin. Other studies have shown that owning a dog can alleviate depression, and this is especially true for older adults. As social ties loosen and family members live farther apart from each other, seniors are at risk of becoming isolated and lonely, which is a cause of depression. Research studied people 60 years and older who didn’t live with a human companion, but had a pet. Their likelihood of being diagnosed with depression was one-quarter as likely as non-pet owners.
- Dogs increase our social interactions with other people. Think about how often you stop to talk to other people when out with your dog, whether it’s neighbors on a walk or new friends you make at the dog park. A study at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University concluded that people who have a strong attachment to a pet report that they feel more connected in their human relationships and their communities. The study also concluded that teenagers and young adults who grow up with a dog become more confident and empathetic.
- Dogs keep you physically active. A Canadian study shows that dog owners are more likely to engage in moderate physical activity than non-dog owners. In fact, dog owners walk an average of 300 minutes per week, while non-dog owners walk an average of 168 minutes a week. Those walks around the block are good for you!
- A dog’s sense of smell can keep you healthy. Dogs can be trained to detect prostate cancer, according to a recent study. They can also help you avoid foods you’re allergic to. Several places in the United States train dogs to sniff out the slightest trace of peanuts in the room. With so many children suffering from severe peanut allergies, this can be a godsend to their families. Dogs can also be trained to alert diabetics to a low blood sugar level.
- Dogs make us want to take care of them. There must be a reason so many people become virtually addicted to dog videos, and why puppies are so irresistible. Konrad Lorenz, a 20th-century Austrian zoologist, posited that a dog’s face possesses an “infant schema”: a dog’s facial features are known as social releasers and bring out an innate caregiver response in humans.
- A dog can make you more attractive to potential love interests. Singles, listen up. A study conducted in the United Kingdom surveyed 700 people: 60 percent said that owning a dog can make a person seem more attractive, and 85 percent said that people seem more approachable when they’re with a dog.
The human-canine attachment is centuries old. Dogs depend on us to take care of them and form strong bonds with their humans. We thrive on their devotion to us. But in their own way, they are taking care of us, as well. The next time someone accuses you of loving the dog more than you love people, you'll have science to back up the reasons why you do.