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.

Why it matters: At a time when loneliness has become a serious health concern, recent research suggests there’s something special about the way canine buddies boost our mood and longevity.

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.


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