Dog owners have known forever that dogs make people happy. However, until recently, dog owners could only back this statement up with anecdotal evidence. Recent studies have demonstrated that not only does dog ownership lead to happiness, it also leads to better health and a longer life. Dogs improve health and happiness through several mechanisms.
Dogs reduce stress. Interacting with a dog, even briefly, lowers blood pressure, reduces stress hormones such as cortisol, and elevates levels of oxytocin, endorphins, and dopamines, all of which are linked to feelings of happiness and relaxation . Stressful situations that occur in the presence of a dog are perceived as being less stressful than the same situation occurring in the presence of a spouse or when alone.
Unlike your “best” human friend, who may often be too busy to accompany you, your dog is always eager and ready to join in whatever activity or non-activity you’re about to embark on. This unconditional ever-present social support is unique to the dog. No other pet animal offers this kind of support, and it is rare to find a human friend that can provide anything even approaching that level of support. When asked, children usually report that their dog is the first individual they will turn to if in need. Most adults report their dog is their best companion, and they talk to and confide in the dog.
In addition to providing social support just by themselves, owning a dog can produce a “magnet” social effect. Dog owners have to walk their dogs, and therefore they have to leave the house and go out in public. Having a dog facilitates social interaction when out in public- strangers often feel very comfortable about approaching people accompanied by dogs and striking up conversations. The converse is true as well- individuals who would normally feel very uncomfortable about talking with strangers often feel at their ease conversing with strangers when accompanied by their dog. Even the most fleeting of social interactions boosts happiness.
It’s just a basic fact of dog ownership that the dog needs to be walked. Everyone knows that exercise is good for health, boosts energy and lifts the mood, but when you get home from work exhausted it’s so easy to just slump on the couch. Not dog owners- they see those pleading eyes and so off they go, walking, and they return home energized and happier. Dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-dog owners. Dog owners are much less likely to develop heart disease than non-dog owners. And people who do develop heart problems live much longer if they own dogs.
Meaning and structure
Unfortunately, dogs don’t live very long. Even the fact that they age can be beneficial to human physical and mental health. Having to care for an aging or infirm dog can provide meaning and structure to a person’s life, and produce a feeling of being needed. Being needed can relieve anxiety and depression. Easing the end for a dog can help prepare the elderly or terminally ill for their own end. And often the loss of a dog is the first exposure a child will have to the reality of death and grief.