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Want to Make More Friends? Get a Dog

A new study finds powerful social benefits for dog owners.

Tina Leggio photo: Creative Commons license
Source: Tina Leggio photo: Creative Commons license

It was a warm spring day. I was out walking my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, when I ran into a woman from our neighborhood walking her little Italian Greyhound. It was because we both walk our dogs that Nancy and I met a year or two earlier. Since that time I had a chance to meet her husband and daughter and I consider them all to be friends. She was quite excited on this morning and told me that a group of neighbors was getting together to talk about some proposed restrictive changes in parking regulations in our neighborhood that she thought would reduce our quality of life. I listened carefully and agreed to join the group to get a bit more information. As we parted, I had the feeling that I had spoken with a friend and was part of a welcoming, supportive neighborhood community—all because of informal encounters with people I met while walking my dog. As it turns out, recent scientific data suggests that this is quite common, as dogs often play a constructive role in building social relationships.

It is quite well accepted by now that dog ownership has a positive effect on an individual's health and psychological well-being. (See examples here or here or here.) For people dealing with loneliness and stress, a dog can be a vital source of both emotional and social support. (See an example here.) But the idea that dogs can also serve as a means of developing friends and social contacts is only now receiving some direct experimental attention. The most recent research on the topic was conducted by a team of investigators headed by Lisa Wood of the School of Population Health at the University of Western Australia. The experimental results were published in the journal PLOS One*.

This was a large study involving 2,692 people who responded to a rather extensive computer-assisted telephone survey. The study involved four cities—Perth, Australia; San Diego, California; Portland, Oregon; and Nashville, Tennessee. The purpose of the research was to see if pets played a role in people getting to know their neighborhood and forming friendships. The results were unambiguous: The researchers report that "pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood whom they didn't know previously, compared with non-pet owners." Although this study looked at all forms of pet ownership (including cats, rabbits, birds etc.) the investigators found that dog owners were more likely than other pet owners to report that they had gotten to know people in the neighborhood through their pet. Specifically, dog owners were five times more likely to get to know people in their community then other pet owners. The mechanism for this seems to involve walking one's dog—when the dog owners were separated by whether they regularly walk their dog or do not, it was the regular dog walkers who were most likely to get to know other people in their locality.

How this works was illustrated by the comments of some of the people participating in the study:

  • A man from Perth said, "People always stop, complete strangers will stop, and talk to you about your dog and ask you about it. It's funny but it seems to be an icebreaker..."
  • A man from Portland said, "Lots of folks in this neighborhood own and walk dogs. The dogs insist on meeting and greeting, and their humans follow suit. It has caused me to be more social than is my inclination."
  • A woman from San Diego said, "There is a path in our neighborhood that people walk along with their dogs. When you walk that path at the same time every day you run into the same people and start conversations and make friends."

It appears that dogs serve as what psychologists call a "social lubricant." Asking or commenting about a person's dog is a safe way of opening a conversation, and most people tend to find it to be a positive experience, in much the same way as parents enjoy it when favorable attention is paid to their children. The dog "opens the door" and two strangers can choose to step through it and become friends.

Many friendships begin because of encounters that happen while people are walking their dog. These friendly associations can become quite strong and provide a lot of social support. This support can take many different forms, such as talking about things that worry you (emotional support); getting useful information about the neighborhood or resources (informational support); getting advice (appraisal support); or receiving a favor, such as having someone collect your mail when you are away or giving you a ride (instrumental support). In this study, 42% of pet owners received one or more types of social support from people they first got to know through their pet. These are exactly the kinds of supports that psychologists say improve people's quality of life and reduce one's overall stress level.

Source: woottigon/Shutterstock

The researchers end their paper with an observation and an implied recommendation:

"Given friendship networks and social support are associated with mental health and well-being of communities, supporting pet ownership may well be an under-recognized conduit for individual and community wellbeing."

In simple terms, they are saying that if we want friendlier neighborhoods and communities we should support pet ownership and get the dog owners out of the house and walking their dogs.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission

Data from: 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. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122085

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