The Hounds of Happiness
by Heather Mishefske, owner of emBARK
We all have an arsenal of anecdotal evidence that our dogs create happiness in our lives. They snuggle with us, they get us moving when we want to lay on the couch, they are overjoyed when we return from a day at work (or a trip to the mailbox), and they are a constant companion in all of our adventures.
But what does the science behind pet ownership say about the ways that they contribute to our happy factor? Researchers also conclude that canine companionship can create feelings of calm and comfort in our lives.
A study funded by the Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition found that people who owned pets were more likely to receive social support through people that they met through their pet. (Wood et al, 2015). Having a pet is a catalyst to meet new people. A significant factor in mental health issues is social isolation. Finding support with other pet-loving people can provide a link to others who may be able to provide a social interaction that may have not occurred had there not been a pet involved in the equation. The researchers went as far to say that these types of interactions between pet owners can help facilitate stronger neighborhoods.
We also know that looking into our pet’s eyes lovingly brings us pleasure, and there is some clear science behind this. The research behind this is clear. Many studies have revealed that our gaze into our dog’s eyes brings about higher levels of oxytocin. (Nagasawa et al, 2015). Many scientists refer to oxytocin as the “tend and befriend” or the “trust molecule” that promotes strong pleasurable feelings between a pair. This hormone is evident in wild animals, mothers and babies, and partners. As dog owners, we know this feeling. A quiet snuggle with our dogs on the couch after a long day feels quite comforting and is a relaxing way to end the day. We seek this comfort out because of those good feels we get by burying our weary head into our dog’s fur and methodically stroking those soft ears.
An analysis of 148 studies on the topic of social connection found that people with social networks are 50% more likely to live longer than those with limited social interactions. (Holt-Lunstad et al 2010) The study suggests that those who own pets have an easier time to make this connection. And we all know that when walking a new dog in our neighborhood, everyone wants to meet your new dog, and will continue to engage with you to keep tabs on how your new pooch is doing. Meeting neighbors, other dog lovers, children and passersby’s who will show interest with you on your daily walk creates an engagement that may of not occurred sans dog. This routine can help keep involved in social interactions, whereas without a dog in tow, we may discourage social interactions with others.
There are so many ways that we know that dogs can help us raise our moods. Caretaking of our animals also means that we are responsible for another creature’s wellbeing. There is something to be said when we must break away from our own cares and provide care to a creature that we love. Our dogs have needs that need to be met. Without opposable thumbs, we must be the ones to feed, water, open the door, deliver treats, and walk them. These needs are not optional, and we must rise to the occasion each day to provide the basics to our animals.
Of course, being a dog trainer, I must quote the literature behind positive reinforcement as a training method. There is now a wealth of research telling us that using positive reinforcement creates a better relationship between human and dog. (Herron et al, 2009). Confrontational methods and aversive equipment (yelling, scolding, e-collars, prong collars, choke chains) can affect overall welfare of our dogs, and cause human/dog relationships to be compromised. (Vieira de Castro et al 2019).
Charles Schutz once said “Happiness is a warm puppy.”
Yes Charles, yes it is.
Heather Mishefske is the owner of emBARK in Eau Claire, WI. She is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA) and a Certified Canine Behavior Consultant (CBCC-KA). She has two Flat Coated Retrievers who contribute to her daily happiness quotient.
Wood L, Martin K, Christian H, Nathan A, Lauritsen C, Houghton S, et al. (2015) The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122085. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0122085
By Miho Nagasawa, Shouhei Mitsui, Shiori En, Nobuyo Ohtani, Mitsuaki Ohta, Yasuo Sakuma, Tatsushi Onaka, Kazutaka Mogi, Takefumi Kikusui
Science17 Apr 2015 : 333-336. DOI: 10.1126/science.1261022
Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB (2010) Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. PLoS Med 7(7): e1000316. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316
Herron, M.E., Shofer, F.S., & Reisner, I.R. (2009). Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesirable behaviors Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117, 47-54
Vieira de Castro, A. C., Barrett, J., de Sousa, L., & Olsson, I. A. S. (2019). Carrots versus sticks: The relationship between training methods and dog-owner attachment. Applied Animal Behaviour Science.