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Animal Behavior

Do Dog Owners Make Better Lovers? Some Scientific Answers

Insights into the human-canine connection

Copyright 2015 Kim Rodriques
Source: Copyright 2015 Kim Rodriques

Dogs have had our backs for some 130,000 years, or so it’s thought, and the loyalty and intelligence of our canine companions have long been recognized. It’s not an accident that in The Odysseydating in its written form to perhaps the 8th century B.C.E. but probably preceded by an even older oral tradition— the first “person” to recognize the wandering and disguised hero is Argos, his dog. Dogs do more than provide companionship to humans; they reflect our personalities, our tastes, perhaps even our beliefs, and enrich us psychologically and physically, as research makes clear. Here are some of the fascinating insights science has discovered.

Dog people are more extraverted and dogs act as social catalysts for interaction.

Studies show that compared with cat folks, dog lovers are more outgoing—which isn’t surprising since owning a dog requires you to be out and about three times a day. But other work, such as that of June McNicholas and Glyn M. Collis, showed that being in the company of a dog actually increased the chances of social interactions with other people. It’s not just that dog lovers are more extraverted to begin with but that having a dog increases how social you are in real terms. Anyone suffering from shyness might consider acquiring a pooch as a way of enhancing his or her social skill set.

Having a dog can even change family functioning; one study from the 1990s showed that families with dogs engaged in more leisure activities with their children as well as with outsiders. Maybe we should swap our smart phones and tablets for a pooch and sit down for a family dinner or take a long walk together?

Copyright 2015 Kim Rodriques
Source: Copyright 2015 Kim Rodriques

The presence of a dog increases our sense of trust and perhaps our empathy.

One study had student participants rate the trustworthiness of two therapists by watching a video of each; one was accompanied by a dog and the other wasn’t. Guess who fared better overall, even with those skeptical about psychotherapy? (Not the Fido-free one.) Similarly, the presence of a dog in a first-grade classroom in a study conducted by Andreas Hergovich and others showed both a decline in kids’ aggressive behavior and an increased awareness of others. It would appear that just having a dog in the room teaches kids about empathy and encourages them to be more empathic.

You’ll be noticed more with a dog (but it needs to be the right one).

That’s what a study by Catherine Wells showed which looked at the responses of 1,800 pedestrians to a researcher. The researcher was accompanied by either a Labrador puppy, an adult Labrador, a Rottweiler, a teddy bear, a potted plant, or nothing. The social interest expressed by the pedestrians was coded by observers as ignore, overlook, look at experimenter, smile at experimenter, or talk to experimenter. It will surprise no one that the experimenter was ignored when she was alone, with a teddy bear or potted plant, and, yes, even with the Rottweiler. (Sorry, Rottweiler fans…) It was the Labs—especially the puppy—who elicited smiles and conversations. So, if you’ve been walking the streets alone, with a teddy bear, a plant, or a breed that communicates “not cuddly,” you probably aren’t going to enlarge your social circle with total strangers. But I do know from experience that a tail-wagging cocker spaniel is a real ice-breaker, especially if you’re in your twenties or thirties.

Copyright 2015 Kim Rodriuqes
Source: Copyright 2015 Kim Rodriuqes

People are more generous, helpful, and even trusting when someone has a dog.

And it doesn’t have to be a pedigreed dog either because this series of experiments conducted by Nicholas Guéguen and Serge Ciccotti used a black mutt, chosen for his kind and dynamic personality. In the first experiment, a young man, nicely but informally dressed in jeans and a teeshirt, approached random people (every fifth person he saw) and asked for bus money either with the mutt or without. People were more generous with money with the pooch present. In a second experiment, a young woman with or without a dog asked for bus money, and while men were generally more responsive (duh…), it was the dog who sparked greater generosity, not gender. In a third experiment, the young man “accidentally” dropped coins on the ground and, once again, people were more helpful when he had the dog in tow.

The last experiment could have been called “the good-looking dude” test (the twenty-year-old was actually chosen on that basis by three women). This time, he was supposed to approach a woman walking alone, between the ages of 18 and 25, with the following line: “Hello. My name is Antoine. I just want to say that you’re really pretty. I have to work this afternoon but I was wondering if you would give me your phone number. I’ll phone you later and we can have a drink somewhere together.” This solicitation was delivered with and without the dog in tow. An amazing 28.3% of women gave this total stranger their number when he had the dog with him, compared to 9.2% when he was on his own! (In case you’re wondering, to keep it all on the up and up, the women who accepted were told this was an experiment, not an actual date.)

More to the point, the researchers refer to a previous experiment they did on courtship which had nothing to do with dogs. It was the same scenario (cute guy asking for phone numbers) but in that study, the guy touched the woman lightly half the time when he asked. It turns out that touch only yielded 19.2% compliance, compared with the 28.3% with the dog. The researchers opine that the dog’s presence increases our attribution of certain personal qualities to a stranger —that he or she is more kind, thoughtful, or sensitive—and that we are more inclined to be generous, helpful, or receptive as a result. There are acknowledged limitations to this study but you don’t need to be a statistician to get the message: If you need to rev up your social life, get a dog!

Copyright 2015 Kim Rodriques
Source: Copyright 2015 Kim Rodriques

Our ability to connect overall is enhanced by dogs (and cats).

That’s what several experiments by Allen R.McConnell and others showed in an article entitled, amusingly enough, “Friends with Benefits.” Cultural tropes sometime imply that pet owners—dog people but especially cat people—turn to their pets out of loneliness or disappointment in human connections, and prefer instead the company of a being who doesn’t talk back or hurt our feeling. But that’s not what the researchers found. People who saw their dogs as sources of company and social support also turned to friends and close others for support as well. In one experiment which looked at the pain of rejection and the roles pets played in assuaging hurt, the researchers had participants write about a time they felt excluded and then had them write either about their pet or best friend (the control group drew a map of campus). It turns out that thinking about a pet did as much to ease the sting of rejection as thinking about a pal.

While other studies show that pet owners are happier and healthier, this one seems to underscore that pet owner understand their social needs in depth and find ways of getting them met in ways that non-owners don’t. I don’t know if that makes them better lovers but it does speak volumes about their view of relationships.

Photographs courtesy of and copyrighted © Kim Roderiques 2015. Buy her book Dogs on Cape Cod (Hummingbird Press, 2015) at bookstores nationwide.

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Gosling, Samuel D., Carson T. Sandy, and Jeff Potter,”Personalities of Self-Identified ‘Dog People’ and ‘Cat People,”Anthrozoös (2010), 23 (2), 213-222.

Beetz, Andrea, Kerstin Urnas-Moberg, Henri Julius, and Kurt Kortshol, “Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin, “ Frontiers in Psychology (2012(, 3: 324,doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234

McNicholas, June and Glyn M. Collis, “Dogs as Catalysts for Social Interactions: Robustness of the Effect,” British Journal of Psychology (2000), 91, 61-70.

Hergovich, Andreas, Bardia Momshi, Gabriele Semmler, and Verena Zieglmayer,”The Effects of the Presence of a Dog in the Classroom,” Anthrozoös (2002), 15 (1), 37-50.

Wells, D.L. “The facilitation of social interactions by domestic dogs,” Anthrozoös (2004), 17, 340-352.

Guéguen, Nicholas and Serge Ciccotti,”Domestic Dogs as Facilitators in Social Interactions: An Evaluation of Helping and Courtship Behaviors,” Anthrozoös (2008), 21 (4), 339-349.

McConnell, Allen R., Christina M. Brown, Tonya R. Shoda, Laura E. Strayton, and Colleen E. Martin, “Friends with Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2011), vol.102., no.6, 1239-1255.

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