Suburban Marin county is a dog lover's paradise, with its many creekside and tree-lined trails and walking paths. After school dropoff, I join the ranks of Nike-clad moms, fit elders, professional dog-walkers, and erudite, slightly greying early-retired dads in the morning dog walk. It's a suburban legend that dogs and their owners grow more alike over time until you can't tell who is taking whom for a walk! I have certainly seen my share of heavyset Bulldog owners and blonde, coifed women walking Bouviers, but then again, my brain was primed to look for similarities and ignore differences. To get a more objective view, I took a look at the latest scientific findings about pet ownership and now bring you some hot-off-the-press findings about which stereotypes are actually true.
Are Owners of More Aggressive Dog Breeds More Hostile?
A research study to be published in the October, 2012 issue of the journal Personality & Individual Differences provides the first scientific validation of this rather humorous stereotype. Deborah Wells and her colleague at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Island gave personality questionnaires to dog owners attending an obedience class. They limited the study to stereotypically aggressive breeds, including Rottweilers and German Shepherds, compared to stereotypically friendly and peaceful breeds, including Labs and Golden Retrievers. The owners of the more aggressive breeds scored higher on a personality scale assessing traits of anger, aggression and hostility.
The Why Behind The Science....
The study’s author reported in an e-mail to LiveScience that although this was not yet proven, it is possible that people choose dogs that are an extension of themselves. We choose friends and partners with similar interests and tendencies, so why not dogs? It is also possible that some other factor both causes people to be more aggressive and causes them to choose aggressive breeds. People who are socially isolated, with few visitors or those living in high-crime neighborhoods are under more chronic stress, which may make them more aggressive and also more likely to choose a guard dog, such as a German shepherd.
Does Owning a Pet Make You Healthier?
Many research studies have been done, looking at this relationship in healthy people, those with chronic illness, the elderly, and nursing home residents. In these studies, dog ownership has been linked to more variability (flexibility) in how the heart adapts to stressful circumstances, lower heart rate and blood pressure, less pain, less substantially less incidence of heart attack or stroke across periods of ten years or longer. Most studies have looked at dogs, but some looked at cats.
The Why Behind the Science....
The obvious explanation is that owning a dog gets you outdoors and walking, as Fido needs exercise. My Aussie Shepherd herds me out the door every morning. We are both hard-working types!! In fact, research shows dog owners get more aerobic exercise than those without pets. Exercise has all kinds of heart health benefits, helps fend off obesity and diabetes, and helps you avoid the pitfalls of a sedentary lifestyle. Getting out of the house also opens up more social opportunities and helps you meet the neighbors and feel more integrated into your neighborhood. This, too, can extend your life, as well-designed studies have documented. But, what about the cat owners? We normally don’t see too many cat walkers around the neighborhood, last that I checked. It turns out that pets also have direct de-stressing effects, without your having to do anything. In experimental studies, when people had to put their hands in ice water, or do mental arithmetic, they were significantly less stressed, both psychologically and physiologically, when accompanied by their pet than by their spouse or friend. Hmmm?
Do Dog Owners Look Like Their Pets?
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego found that people were able to correctly identify real (versus fake) dog-owner pairs two-thirds of the time, if the dogs were pure breeds. They were less successful with the mutts. This finding of dog-owner similarity has been replicated in Great Britain and Japan.
The Why Behind the Science
The San Diego researchers actually tested the hypothesis that dogs and their owners, like married couples, grow to look more similar over time. This time, there was no evidence to support the relationship. Those who had owned dogs longer were not any more likely to be paired correctly with their dogs than the newer dog owners. Rather than growing more similar, it’s likely people choose dogs that look more like them to begin with. Is this a conscious choice or unconscious bias? We don’t know the answer yet. We do know that humans have an automatic distrust of dissimilar others, and trust increases with increasing perceptions of similarity. In the days when humans lived in small tribes, this could have increased one’s chances of survival. It is fascinating to think that our brains might automatically direct us to “familiar” nonhumans as well.
About The Author
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D. is a Clinical Psychologist, and expert on Mindfulness and Positive Psychology. Dr Greenberg provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, life, weight loss, or career coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples.
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