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Animal Behavior

Can Your Dog Help You Get Dates?

A new study reveals how pets play into men and women's judgment of prospects.

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I was waiting in a slow-moving line at a coffee shop; immediately behind me were two young women, perhaps in their early 20s, chatting about their love life. They caught my attention when the conversation turned toward dogs and dating.

One of them explained, "I sort of thought that Don was a possibility. He's good-looking, works in a good job, and he seems pleasant enough. The problem is that he has this really nice Golden Retriever named Shelby. When I saw them together, he never talked directly to the dog and never petted him. Then when the dog strayed over to say hello to somebody who had come near us, he actually yelled at the dog, 'No! Don't do that!' and gave a really hard yank on the leash to drag him back. It made me suspicious. If he's going to act that way toward his dog, how is he going toward act to me if we get into a relationship, and I do something that he doesn't like?"

The other woman nodded. "I think you're right," she said. "A man's relationship to his dog says a lot. I signed up for OkCupid and when I scan their suggestions I always check the photographs. The guys who include their dog in their profile photo always rise to the top of the list for me; they are the first ones I contact."

I chuckled to myself at that point, because in my briefcase was a reprint of an article by a team of researchers headed by Peter Gray of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who also has an association with the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction at Indiana University. The article was published in the journal Anthrozoos* and the conversation I overheard seemed to validate its findings.

This new research was triggered by numerous findings that dogs (and cats) are increasingly viewed as family members. The researchers reason that if this is the case, a person's pets, or attitudes toward their pets, could have a significant influence on their choice of romantic partners. Their additional hypothesis was that single women place more value on how a potential mate interacts with their pet than single men do. This was a fairly large study with data collected from a sample of 1,210 individuals registered on the dating site Responses were coded on the basis of age and sex.

In response to the question, "Have you ever been more attracted to someone because they had a pet?" women were more likely to say "yes" than men. The effect was much stronger for women in their 20s (58%) and diminished with age (for women 50 or older, it was only 30%). Apparently men recognize this tendency since, when asked, "Have you ever used a pet to attract a potential date?" men were four times more likely to admit that they had done so (22%, versus just 6% for women). Again there was an age effect, with younger men more likely to use their pet to make themselves appear more attractive.

Compared with men, women were nearly twice as likely to report that they judged a person based on how her pet reacted to them (47%, versus 29% for men). That reaction remains constant over all age groups. Younger men (in their 20s) did pay some attention to how their pets reacted to their date, but this was less important for older men. The flip side of this question is how the date reacts to a person's pets. Again this was much more important for women than for men (73% versus 58%). Women were also much less likely to say that they would date somebody who didn't like pets than were men (26% versus 45%).

The researchers also asked whether including photos of a pet in an individual's online dating profile had an effect. In general, women tended to feel that having the pets in the photo was a plus much more so than men, with the strongest effects again being for women in their 20s (46%). Younger women were also more likely to believe that a date's choice in pet revealed a lot about their personality (83%, versus 52% for men). However, the difference between men and women diminishes with age on this question.

These researchers had a secondary hypothesis—that dogs serve more prominent roles than cats in shaping the view that people form about a potential partner. The reason is that dogs are more social, and require more care and attention. This question was addressed indirectly by looking at the responses of dog owners versus cat owners. Cat owners seemed less likely to express the sentiment that they were attracted to someone because of a pet, and were less likely to use their pet to try to attract potential dates. Cat owners were also less likely to report that the way their pets reacted to a date, or a date reacted to their pets, was important.

If you are considering acting on the data from this experiment, you should know that including a picture of your cat in your dating profile seems to have a less positive value than including a picture of your dog. According to the researchers, "Responses indicated that singles less often advertised and were less responsive to cues of cat ownership or treatment."

The team concluded, "Women showed more discerning views than men with regard to the role of pets in their dating lives….Women seem to rely upon cues of how a partner interacted with a pet more than did men in determining whether or not the prospective partner was worth dating or considering for a longer term relationship."

As I got my cup of coffee and turned to leave, the conversation between the two young women had moved in a different direction, as one asked the other, "What would you think of a guy whose profile included a picture of his pet parrot?"

Stanley Coren is the author of books including: Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; 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: Peter B. Gray, Shelly L. Volsche, Justin R. Garcia & Helen E. Fisher (2015) The Roles of Pet Dogs and Cats in Human Courtship and Dating. Anthrozoös, 28:4, 673-683, DOI: 10.1080/08927936.2015.1064216

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