It is likely that humans and dogs have shared a special bond of friendship and mutual support ever since at least the Neolithic period — but why has this bond been so long-lasting?
Of course, these cousins of the wolves have historically been great at keeping us and our dwellings safe, guarding our houses, our cattle, and our various material goods. Throughout history, humans have also trained dogs to assist them with hunting, or they have bred numerous quirky-looking species for their cuteness or elegance.
However, dogs are also — and might have always been — truly valued companions, famed for their loyalty and seemingly constant willingness to put a smile on their owners’ faces.
In this Spotlight, we outline the research that shows how our dogs make us happier, more resilient when facing stress, and physically healthier, to name but a few ways in which these much-loved quadrupeds support our well-being.
Many studies have suggested that having dogs as pets is associated with better physical health, as reviews of the existing literature show. These findings persist.
Just last year, Medical News Today reported on a study that showed that owning a dog reduces a person’s risk of premature death by up to a third.
Why is that? It is difficult to establish a causal relationship between owning a dog and enjoying better health.
However, the benefits may appear thanks to a series of factors related to lifestyle adjustments that people tend to make after they decide to adopt a canine friend.
The most prominent such lifestyle factor is physical activity. There is no way around it: if you own a dog, you have to commit to twice daily walks — and sometimes even more.
According to a paper published in The Journal of Physical Activity and Health, dog owners are more likely to walk for leisure purposes than both non-pet owners and people who own pet cats.
The results were based on studying a cohort of 41,514 participants from California, some of whom owned dogs, some of whom owned cats, and some of whom did not have any pets.
Moreover, several recent studies — including one from the University of Missouri in Columbia and another from Glasgow Caledonian University in the United Kingdom — found that adults aged 60 and over enjoy better health thanks to the “enforced” exercise they get by walking their dogs.
“Over the course of a week, this additional time spent walking may in itself be sufficient to meet [World Health Organization] recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity.”
Philippa Dall, Glasgow Caledonian University
Dogs can strengthen our health not just as we grow older, but also much, much earlier than that: before we are even born.
Research published last year suggests that children who were exposed to dogs while still in the womb — as their mothers spent time around dogs during pregnancy — had a lower risk of developing eczema in early childhood.
Also, children exposed to certain bacteria carried by dogs also experienced a reduction of asthma symptoms, the researchers noted.
It is really difficult not to cheer up, even after a hard day’s work, when you are greeted with — often vocal — enthusiasm by a friendly dog.
This, researchers explain, is due to the effect of the “love hormone” oxytocin.
“During the last decades,” write the authors of a review that featured in Frontiers in Psychology, “animal assistance in therapy, education, and care has greatly increased.”
When we interact with dogs, our oxytocin levels shoot up. Since this is the hormone largely responsible for social bonding, this hormonal “love injection” boosts our psychological well-being.
Previous studies analyzed in the review have revealed that dog owners have more positive social interactions, and that the presence of canine friends makes people more trusting…and also more deserving of trust.