Are Dogs the New Best Social Secretary?

Trying to build new social connections? A dog might be the answer.

Posted Jul 04, 2020

During the current pandemic, most of us have noticed the lack of social connectedness. For many, this has been particularly difficult and troubling. So this is an especially apt time to reflect on the fact that for people with intellectual disabilities, the lack of social connections is often the norm, rather than the exception.

Some existing research has shown that the presence of companion animals can act as catalysts for social encounters. Indeed, anyone who has taken a dog for a walk will probably tell you that having a dog with you makes it much more likely that people will stop and chat with you. But is this anecdotal evidence backed up by the research? 

Kristie Miller
Annie and Freddie out and about
Source: Kristie Miller

A recent study conducted by Melbourne researchers aimed to test whether having a dog present would help facilitate social connections for people with intellectual disabilities. The study divided its participants into two groups. One group of participants went into the community each day with just a human companion. The other group of participants had both a human companion and a dog. The study then measured the number and kind of interactions amongst people in each group. 

Those of us with dogs will find it unsurprising to learn that when participants had a dog with them, the number of social encounters was significantly higher than when there was no dog present. 

Researchers found that the presence of the dog helped to break social norms that exist regarding speaking to strangers (i.e., that the norm is that one does not speak to strangers). So they found that the presence of the dog facilitated social interactions. 

They also found that when people visited the same venues over time, the rate at which they were recognized was higher when they had a dog with them. This recognition proved to be important in fostering ongoing social interactions. So the presence of a dog not only "broke the ice" by making it more likely that interaction would occur between strangers, but in addition, it made it more likely that there would be continued interaction.

It also provided a point of common interest to facilitate conversation: It gave people something to talk about. Finally, the presence of a dog gave participants greater confidence to engage in social encounters, presumably because they drew confidence from a series of successful social encounters facilitated by the presence of the dog. 

The researchers concluded that programs that included dog walking might be valuable in helping people with intellectual disabilities to create new social connections. 

It seems very likely, on the basis of this study and several earlier studies, that these results generalize: Quite generally, people find it easier to create new social connections if a dog is present. 

So if you want to start making new social connections, you might want to borrow a dog the next time you go out and about. Dogs: the new social secretary. 

References

Bould, E., Bigby, C., Bennet, P.C. and Howell, T. J. (2018). “‘More people talk to you when you have a dog’ – dogs as catalyses for social inclusion of people with intellectual disabilities.” Journal of Intellectual Disability Research 62(1) 833-841.