Lives Brightened by Doggie Dynamics


From the WebMD Archives

Feb. 15, 2000 (New York) — The average pooch isn’t good enough for the Super Bowl of dog shows, the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, taking place this week New York. However, Spot or Fido can be the key to open up an owner’s social life, according to a study in the Feb. 15 issue of the British Journal of Psychology. The new findings may help explain why pet owners live longer, healthier lives than non-pet owners.

In the study, people who walked dogs tended to have more social interactions during the course of the day than people without canine companions, mostly because people are more likely to strike up a conversation if there is a safe topic available, such as a dog. For example, passersby may make comments including “I used to have a dog,” “Can I pet your dog?” or “What type of dog is that?” to the dog owner.

Pets may enhance social interactions between people, strengthening social networks and thus elevating psychological and physical well-being, the researchers speculate.

“This may help us understand why pet owners are frequently reported to be healthier than non-owners,” lead researcher June McNicholas, PhD, of the department of psychology at the University of Warwick in England, points out in a written press release. “It may be that increased casual social contact can increase feelings of well-being and provide companionship and sense of social integration.”

While the new study only looked at dogs, the findings most likely apply to other types of pets as well, conclude McNicholas and her colleague Glyn M. Collis, PhD.

In the first of two experiments, a woman walked a yellow Labrador as she went about her daily routines for five days. Then, she went about the same routines without the dog for five days. In the 10 days, she had a total of 206 encounters with people, and 156 occurred when she was accompanied by the dog, the researchers report.

The second experiment was designed to see if the appearance of the dog or the dog walker affected social interactions. The dog walker was either dressed in a sports jacket, collar, and tie and neatly pressed trousers or in torn, dirty jeans, scuffed work boots, an old T-shirt, and a stained jacket. The dog either wore a colored, matching collar or a studded leather collar with a piece of frayed rope as a leash. Social interactions were measured when the walkers were alone or walking with a dog in either type of collar.

“Whether smartly dressed or scruffily dressed, the handler experienced a very large increase in interactions when accompanied by a dog,” the researchers write. “The results indicate that the catalytic effect of having a dog present persisted even when the appearance of the dog and/or experimenter was less appealing.”

In both experiments, being accompanied by a dog increased the frequency of social interactions, especially interactions with strangers, the researchers report.

Most of the conversations were either greetings or brief comments, as opposed to lengthy discussions, and they occurred in areas other than those that are commonly used for dog walking.

Alan M. Beck, ScD, author of Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship, is not surprised by the new findings. “If you see a person with an animal, they seem less threatening and thus are easier to approach,” he says. Beck is also professor of animal ecology and director of the Center for the Human/Animal Bond at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

“There really is a lot of evidence that people with pets live longer than people without pets,” Beck says. “Companion animals can play many roles — we talk to them, find comfort in physical contact with them, and they can have a true relaxing effect on us.”

Studies have found that stroking a dog or cat can actually lower blood pressure levels, he says. Other studies have shown that people with pets have lower levels of triglycerides, cholesterol, and blood pressure than non-owners.

“Having a pet also stimulates exercise, activity, and play,” he adds. People who engage in regular exercise tend to live longer than those who do not, he explains.

Vital Information:

  • People who walk dogs tend to have more social interactions than those who do not have a dog, according to a new study.
  • These social interactions may increase physical and psychological well-being, which could help explain why pet owners live longer, healthier lives than non-pet owners.
  • Other studies have shown that owning a pet can have a positive impact on blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and exercise habits.

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