According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), an estimated 78 million dogs are owned as pets in the United States. It is unclear when dogs were first domesticated, but a study published last year claims that, at least in Europe, dogs were tamed 20,000–40,000 years ago.
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.
How dogs keep you in good health
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. person walking two dogs
Dogs ‘force’ their owners to take daily exercise.
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. Also, researchers at the University of Harvard in Cambridge, MA, suggest that dog owners have a lower risk of heart disease.
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.
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.
‘Dogs make people feel good’
Perhaps the most intuitive benefit of sharing your life and home with a canine friend is that dogs give you “feel-good vibes” almost instantly.
person snuggling puppy Dogs are often used as therapy animals because they have a calming effect on people. 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. Moreover, dogs appear to reduce symptoms of depression and render people more resilient to stress. That is why dogs are often used as therapy animals. As researcher Brian Hare, of Duke University in Durham, NC, noted in an interview for The Washington Post:
“Dogs make people feel good, and their only job is to help people in stressful situations feel better.”
Researchers hypothesize that therapy dogs can improve the psychological well-being of children going through cancer therapy, as well as help individuals diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) deal with disruptive symptoms or even prevent the onset of PTSD episodes.