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 slightly graying early-retired dads in a morning dog walk. It's a suburban legend that dogs and their owners grow more alike over time—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. For a more objective view of the myths and facts about pet ownership, I took a look at some key recent scientific findings:
Are Owners of More Aggressive Dog Breeds More Hostile?
A study published in the October, 2012 issue of the journal Personality & Individual Differences provided the first scientific validation of this stereotype. Deborah Wells and a colleague at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Island gave personality questionnaires to dog owners attending an obedience class. Their study compared the owners of stereotypically aggressive breeds, including Rottweilers and German Shepherds, with owners of 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.
Behind the Science: The study’s author reported in an e-mail to LiveScience that although this theory 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 pets? It is also possible that some other factor both causes people to be more aggressive and to choose aggressive breeds. People who are socially isolated, who have few visitors, or live 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 studies have looked at this relationship in healthy people, those with chronic illness, the elderly, and nursing-home residents, and dog ownership has consistently been linked to more variability (flexibility) in how the heart adapts to stressful circumstances, lower heart rate and blood pressure, less pain, and a substantially lower incidence of heart attack or stroke across periods of 10 years or longer. Most studies have looked at dog ownership, but some have included cats.
Behind the Science: The obvious explanation is that owning a dog gets you outdoors and walking—my Aussie Shepherd herds me out the door every morning. And in fact, research shows that 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—it 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, at least last I checked, but pets, including cats, also have direct de-stressing effects—without you 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, if they were accompanied by their pet than by a spouse or a friend.
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-and-owner pairs two-thirds of the time, if the dogs were pure breeds. (They were less successful with mutts.) This finding of dog-owner similarity has been replicated in Great Britain and Japan.
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. But there was no evidence to support this relationship—those who had owned dogs longer were not any more likely to be paired correctly (by others, through photos) with their dogs than newer owners. Rather than growing more similar, it’s likely then that 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. But we do know that humans have an automatic distrust of dissimilar others, and that 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.
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and expert on mindfulness and positive psychology. She provides workshops and speaking engagements for organizations, life, weight loss, or career coaching, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples.
Visit my website http://www.drmelaniegreenberg.net
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