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Just Looking at a Dog Can Make You Smile

A new way of confirming that dogs produce positive emotional changes in people

György Rétvári photo -- Creative Commons License
Source: György Rétvári photo -- Creative Commons License

For the majority of people, interacting with dogs tends to produce positive emotional responses. It is this behavioral tendency in humans that allows us to use dogs as aids in psychological therapy — to provide emotional support and comfort to people under stress. There is now a lot of data which says that the degree of stress reduction which our interactions with pet dogs provides is large enough that it can protect us from certain health problems which are known to be aggravated by stress. In fact a task force report from the American Heart Association concluded "there are plausible psychological, sociological and physiological reasons to believe that pet ownership might actually have a causal role in decreasing cardiovascular risk." (Click here for more about that).

Research demonstrating the emotional bond between humans and dogs has become much more sophisticated in recent years. While some studies continue to use surveys and questionnaires to investigate this issue, others have used complex physiological measures, including measures of heart rate, breathing, muscle tension, and the concentration of stress hormones in the blood (the corticosteroids) to show that interacting with dogs makes us feel better. More recently, researchers have shown that the levels of oxytocin (the so-called "love hormone") in the blood of people rises when they are around dogs (click here for more about that). Perhaps the most complex measurements of the emotional responses that dogs can cause in people comes from recent studies which have looked at fMRI measurements and have shown that we respond to dogs with the same affection that we respond to human children (click here for more about that).

However, it turns out that complex experimentation may not be necessary to demonstrate the effects that dogs have on people. I was discussing the stress reducing effect that dogs have on humans with a friend who is also a colleague and a well-respected psychological researcher. He had come to my home for a casual visit. I was telling him about how all of this new sophisticated experimentation was now demonstrating just how positively people respond to dogs.

He stopped me with a wave of his hand and protested, "If it takes such high tech measurement to determine that dogs make you feel good, then the effects can't be very strong or very significant. Look, can you give me a simple demonstration that dogs make people happier?"

I thought for a moment and then I pointed to my Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Ripley, who was in one of his most preferred places in my house. He was resting on the windowsill looking out at the people passing on the sidewalk. Today he had a lot of people to watch since there was a street fair on Main Street which is just a block from my home. The city had closed off the street for a few blocks and so people were parking their cars in the nearby neighborhoods and strolling past my home on their way to the festivities. The window that Ripley was looking out of is above the eye line of most people, however when some of them did glance up and see my dog lying there it appeared to me that the vast majority of people smiled. My dog was not doing anything exciting are interesting, he was just lying there, observing the people passing by and looking like a typical dog.

"That's not data," he objected, "it's just your casual observation."

"That's true," I replied, "but it can easily be turned into data — without resorting to any kind of sophisticated experimental equipment to aid the data collection."

I left the room for a few moments and returned carrying a couple of bottles of beer, a notepad, and a pencil.

"We are going to do some naturalistic observation. This is the kind of data collection that ethologists do when studying animals in their natural habitats. You can be the experimenter today. Here are the rules for today's investigation. We will be observing the people passing by the window where Ripley is. Obviously some of them are not going to look up and will not see my dog on the windowsill, but some will. If they do look up, all that you have to do is to note whether there is any change in their facial expression. We have three classes of responses: 1) the person smiles; 2) the person frowns or shows some other negative emotional response; 3) there is no change in expression or the expression is neither positive nor negative."

So we sat there, looking out the window, sipping beer, and simply tallying the facial expressions of people who walked by and happened to glance up at my dog. Ripley was quite content to remain on the windowsill since this day's increased pedestrian traffic flow appeared to amuse him. I have no idea how long we continued to record the data, but it was probably the better part of an hour or maybe a bit longer. I did notice that quite often, when people were in family groups, or in couples, one person would glimpse the dog in the window and smile, and then point out his presence to the others who almost always looked up and smiled as well. Seeing the dog there seemed to be a pleasantry that people wanted to share.

When my dog terminated the experiment by climbing down from the window to find a more comfortable place to take an afternoon nap, we looked at the score sheet. The results were astonishingly clear. We had scored 96 instances of people glancing up at the dog on the windowsill. In 71 of these instances (74%) the individual smiled upon seeing the dog. In 25 of the observations (26%) there was no change in expression or the facial expression was neutral (neither positive nor negative). There was not one instance in which an individual glanced up and saw the dog and frowned, or showed any negative emotional expression on their face. Just for his own amusement my friend computed the statistical significance of these findings and confirmed that the results were well above those that would be expected by chance alone*.

He laughed and shoved the notepad across the table to me. "I don't know if this demonstrates that dogs are stress reducers, but it certainly seems to confirm that they are smile-making machines. It seems like a pretty powerful effect when just the sight of a dog produces smiles in three quarters of the people seeing it."

It is true that sometimes complex experimental designs and sophisticated equipment are needed to answer psychological questions. However sometimes, just looking and counting, seems to suffice. In this instance such simple observation seems to confirm that seeing a dog tends to make people smile and from that we might infer that just seeing a dog tends to make most people feel a bit happier.

Stanley Coren is the author of many 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

* Statistical test: obtained vs expected proportions, z=4.90, p<0.001.

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