Dogs are good for people, and we’re not the only ones who say so; a slew of scientific studies attest to the ways humans benefit from their relationships with canines. These results support something most dog people feel intuitively: our lives are better with dogs in them. Of course, you’ll have to forge a real bond with a dog in order to reap many of these rewards. Here are some of the biggest ways dogs can help you, how researchers have tried to prove it, and what you can provide your pup in return.
A dog can keep you active
Have you seen those people walking, running, or biking with their dogs outside? That could be you.
What a dog can do for you: According to the National Institutes of Health, “several surveys and prospective studies have shown that adults who own a pet exercise more and participate in more leisure-time physical activity.” As one example, they cite a study finding that “people who owned a dog walked more as a leisure-time activity and walked almost 20 minutes more each week than people who did not own a pet.” This isn’t surprising—most dogs go to the bathroom outside, which means, at bare minimum, a couple of built-in trips out the door for a responsible dog owner. Taking care of a dog’s physical and mental needs will generally also involve much more time on trails, in parks, on sidewalks, and wherever else they can work their muscles, get fresh air, and smell interesting scents.
What you’ll have to do for your dog: Give them exercise, too. Healthy dogs need the opportunity to walk, run, sniff, and do other fun dog things. If you choose to leave your dog sitting around, bored and inactive all the time, then neither of you are likely to get in shape—and your pal may become anxious and destructive.
A dog can be a good friend
Perhaps, and not to overstate it, a best friend.
What a dog can do for you: Dogs make great company for those who want them around. A recent survey found that dog owners were less likely to report being depressed during the COVID-19 pandemic than those who were “very” or “extremely” interested in getting a dog, but did not have one. And the Centers for Disease Control say that, among other benefits, dogs can reduce “feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD.” Looking after a canine friend can also give a human a sense of purpose—your dog is counting on you to get them the exercise, nutrition, healthcare, and love they require to be happy. Doing your best to fulfill those needs can help you forge a durable bond.
What you’ll have to do for your dog: Be a good friend to them. A report from Harvard Medical School says that shelter animals benefited from human contact. The report’s authors write that, in a study of 100 shelter pups, “the dogs that interacted with humans soon after their arrival at the shelter were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva.” This tracks with what most people who interact with dogs would observe—dogs are social animals, and interacting with other living things is crucial to their wellbeing. Last year, Dr. Clive Wynne, Director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, told us that “Dogs have an exceptional capacity and drive to form strong emotional connections with members of other species.” This makes them outstanding companion animals, but also means that it’s especially distressing for them not to get the connection and interaction they need.
A dog can help you de-stress
Just being near a dog, not to mention playing with or petting one, can be relaxing.
What a dog can do for you: Some of the benefits in the “good friend” category apply here as well. Researchers have found that dogs and humans who stare at each other and behave affectionately experience elevated levels of oxytocin, the same hormone that helps bond humans to one another in romance, family relationships, and friendship—and that increased oxytocin leads said humans and dogs to behave more affectionately, too. While scientists are still studying the effects of oxytocin—and it’s a complicated subject—some research shows that it may reduce stress and anxiety in people. On the other hand, at least one study—whose results the researchers themselves called “puzzling”—found that neither dogs nor humans experienced any increase in oxytocin when they interacted. Regardless of the explanation, many dog owners will tell you that hanging out with and petting their dog settles them down.
What you’ll have to do for your dog: Protect them from stress, even if that results in some for you. You’ll worry about your dog if they’re not feeling well, and you could face challenges in providing for them financially or making a schedule that works for them. Bringing a dog into your life means more that you have to keep track of. If you don’t feel the desire to have a loving, mutually beneficial relationship with a dog, planning around one may feel overwhelming. But for humans who do have that desire, it’s all worth it. Be sure that your life is conducive to a well-cared-for pup. Another factor to keep in mind is that you owe it to your dog to protect them from stress as much as you can. That means shielding them from humans and dogs giving them unwanted attention, not leaving them alone for too long, and attending to their needs for veterinary care, companionship, and exercise.
A dog can improve your health in other ways
Having a friend to exercise with and look after can provide a boost to your overall well-being.
What a dog can do for you: Various sources link dog ownership to lower blood pressure, a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and longer survival. And children who grow up in homes with dogs may be less likely to develop pet allergies (however, if your child is already allergic to dogs, you’re not going to cure them by putting a dog near them).
What you’ll have to do for your dog: For one thing, temper your expectations. There are variable levels of evidence for the health benefits of dogs. Lower blood pressure may be a benefit to the calming bond between human and canine, the increased exercise that comes with regular walks, or socialization with other dog people. Regardless of the reason, you can only reap the benefits if you go all-in with your pup.
A dog can’t fix everything
To state the obvious, a dog is not going to solve all of your problems. If you don’t want a dog around, or aren’t ready to look after one, we can promise that acquiring one won’t reduce your stress or encourage you to do more of the things you enjoy. You’d have less time, an extra expense, and a new roommate who was confused about why you didn’t shower them with love and attention. You might see them as a burden (consider how Jerry reacted to his unexpected dog-sitting stint on Seinfeld).
Even if you don’t want the responsibility of caring for one full-time, some interaction with dogs can be helpful. Consider socializing with a friend’s pup, going to settings with therapy dogs, or volunteering with an organization that puts you in contact with canines. Take it from us: politely asking to pet a stranger’s dog on the sidewalk can be soothing.
Ultimately, getting a dog is like a lot of other major decisions whose consequences will last for years of your life, and the right call is personal—it has to do with the meaning that relationship would bring. But if you choose wisely and prepare, you and your new friend can do a tremendous amount of good for one another.