Although I grew up with dogs in the home, I’m not a dog owner now. My husband and I have thought about adopting a dog, but we keep worrying about the cost and commitment involved. Besides having to pay for adoption fees, vet bills, and healthy dog food, we’d also need to walk the dog and find care for it when we go on vacation. It’s definitely a lot of responsibility.
But sometimes, I wonder if we’re looking at this the wrong way. Maybe we’re focusing too much on the difficulties of dog ownership and not thinking enough about the benefits. Studies of dog owners reveal that these furry friends provide an amazing array of benefits to their owners — and by waiting to adopt, we’re missing out on all these perks.
Pro tip: Most dog owners are able to budget for the normal expenses of owning a dog. It’s the unexpected expenses that can be financially dangerous. One way to reduce the potential out-of-pocket expenses from a significant event is through pet insurance from Petplan.
For starters, having a dog can actually make you healthier. A 2019 analysis in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes looked at 10 studies conducted from 1950 to 2019 and found that across all of them, dog owners had a 24% lower risk of death from all causes compared to people without dogs. Dogs help their owners stay healthy in a variety of ways, from keeping them physically active to preventing allergies and even detecting cancer.
One of the most obvious ways having a dog makes you healthier is that it forces you to exercise regularly. If you belong to a gym, you can always come up with excuses not to go to it. But you can’t skip walking the dog.
According to a British study published in 2019 in Scientific Reports, dog owners are about four times as likely as nonowners to meet modern guidelines for physical activity. This study looked at British health guidelines, but dog ownership can help Americans meet our guidelines too.
The latest exercise recommendations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture call for adults to get, at a minimum, two and a half hours of moderate exercise each week. If you spend just 22 minutes a day walking your dog, that’s enough to hit that target.
Walking for exercise brings a wide array of physical benefits. It improves heart health, strengthens bones, improves your mood, and lowers stress — no gym membership or fancy fitness equipment needed. All you need is your dog, a leash, and a stretch of road or land to walk on.
A Healthier Heart
Given the benefits of exercise for heart health, it’s not surprising that having a dog can also prevent heart disease. The 2019 Circulation study found that owning a dog reduced the risk of death from heart disease by 31%. For people who’d already had a heart attack or other serious heart problems, it reduced the risk of death by 65%.
A 2013 statement by the American Heart Association looks at all the ways having either a dog or cat can improve your heart health. It says people with pets tend to have lower heart rates and blood pressure and slightly lower levels of total cholesterol and triglycerides. And a 2019 study by the Mayo Clinic shows that dog owners in the Czech Republic are more likely to have healthy levels of blood glucose than people with other pets or people without pets.
Some of these benefits probably come from dog owners’ higher levels of physical activity. However, it looks like having a dog can also benefit your heart in less obvious ways. For instance, the Mayo Clinic study found that dog owners are more likely to eat a healthy diet. A 2015 study in Anthrozoös found that petting a dog can reduce your heart rate, and 1986 research published in Psychological Reports shows it can lower blood pressure.
A Healthier Weight
In recent years, scientists have become more doubtful about whether exercise really helps you lose weight. Cornell University’s Evidence-Based Living reports that numerous studies show that exercise, though necessary for health, has little effect on weight. That would suggest that even if regularly walking your dog is good exercise, it isn’t necessarily a sufficient weight-loss plan.
However, the Mayo Clinic’s findings about dog owners seem to indicate that walking a dog is actually helpful for maintaining a healthy weight. They point to a 2008 study published in Preventive Medicine showing that dog owners who walk their dogs regularly are less likely to be overweight or obese than either people without pets or dog owners who don’t walk their dogs. Another study, published in Clinical Nursing Research in 2010, found that when public housing residents helped walk certified therapy dogs five times a week, they lost an average of 14.4 pounds over one year.
If you already suffer from a dog allergy, obviously, bringing a dog into your home isn’t a good idea. However, if you want to ensure your kids or grandkids don’t develop pet allergies, studies suggest it could be helpful.
Back in the 1990s, experts believed it was a bad idea to expose babies and toddlers to dogs and cats. They thought early exposure would sensitize kids to pet dander and increase their chances of developing allergies later in life. However, more recent research shows just the opposite.
A 2004 study in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology found that when children under a year old spent time around furry pets, it reduced their risk for both pet allergies and eczema. And a 2017 study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that young children exposed to high indoor levels of pet dander are less likely to develop asthma by the age of 7.
Detecting Illness Earlier
It’s well established that dogs, with their sensitive noses, can be trained to sniff out signs of diseases such as cancer. One program that trains dogs this way is the PennVet Working Dog Center, which is working on a way to use cancer-sniffing dogs to create an early screening system for ovarian cancer.
However, there’s some anecdotal evidence that even dogs with no training can tell when something’s wrong with their owners. A story in American Veterinarian lists several examples of people who discovered they had cancer after their dogs started repeatedly sniffing at particular parts of their bodies. News stories relate cases of dogs sniffing out breast cancer and leukemia. In all these cases, the dog helped the owners get lifesaving treatment sooner.
None of this is to say you should rely on your pet rather than your doctor to tell you if you have a serious illness. But in the right circumstance, having a dog can provide an extra layer of protection.
Dogs can be especially beneficial for older people. A 2016 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology followed senior citizens on Medicare over one year and found that those who had pets, particularly dogs, made fewer trips to the doctor. The pets were particularly helpful in times of stress. Nonowners who went through stressful life events during the year were more likely to suffer health problems than pet owners were.
Seniors who own dogs are also more active, which helps them stay mobile. According to a 2017 study in Gerontologist, older adults who walked dogs regularly exercised more, stayed slimmer, and were less limited in their daily activities. And like the patients in the 2016 study, they made fewer trips to the doctor.
For seniors who are already suffering from serious illnesses, a dog can make it easier to cope. Dr. Lynette Hart, an associate professor at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, told WebMD that seniors with Alzheimer’s disease have “fewer anxious outbursts” when they live with a pet. Their caregivers also feel less burdened — although for them, low-maintenance cats provide a more significant benefit than dogs.
Although owning a dog is clearly good for your physical health, you can’t always see those benefits on a daily basis. But the emotional benefits of a canine companion are easy to see and feel. Just looking at a puppy — or even better, petting and playing with one — can lift your spirits instantly. And according to science, that improvement in your mood translates to better emotional health throughout your life.
Lower Stress Levels
As the 2016 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed, owning a pet reduced the harmful effects of stress for senior citizens. Other studies back up this finding, showing that petting or interacting with a furry friend can reduce people’s stress levels.
For instance, a 1996 study in Applied Animal Behavior Science found that nursing home residents had lower levels of stress when a dog was living in the home. In a 2003 study in Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, researchers put subjects in a stressful situation — exposing them to a tarantula — and then gave them either a live animal or a toy animal to pet. The live animal produced a bigger drop in their measured levels of fear and anxiety.
A 2007 study in the American Journal of Critical Care found that when patients with heart failure received a 12-minute therapy dog visit in the hospital, it relieved their anxiety more than a visit from a human volunteer. And a 2011 study in the European Journal of Integrative Medicine found that patients with acute schizophrenia had a lower measured level of anxiety after an interview when a friendly dog was present.
Further studies suggest dogs lower stress, primarily by reducing levels of some hormones and increasing others. In the 2007 heart failure patient study, patients who interacted with dogs saw significant drops in their levels of the stress hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine. A 2000 study at South Africa’s Life Sciences Research Institute found that interacting with a dog lowered people’s levels of cortisol, another stress hormone. It also raised their levels of several calming hormones, including beta-endorphin, oxytocin, prolactin, beta-phenylethylamine, and dopamine.
For many people, the most significant benefit of having a dog is the unconditional love it provides. Feeling loved is important for your overall mental health, and dog owners agree that their pets help them in this way. In a 2016 survey by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, 74% of pet owners said that having a dog or other pet had improved their mental health, and 75% said it had improved the mental health of a family member.
For some people, being around dogs can also relieve symptoms of depression. For instance:
- A 2005 study in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics demonstrated that a 10-week program with a therapy dog helped alleviate anhedonia (the inability to feel pleasure) for patients with schizophrenia.
- A 2006 study in Anthrozoös found that children with psychiatric disorders showed noticeable improvements in mood after just one therapy session with a dog.
- A 2010 study in the journal AIDS Care showed that AIDS patients were less likely to be depressed if they owned pets.
- A 2018 Portuguese study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that people suffering from treatment-resistant major depressive disorder showed a more significant reduction in their symptoms when they added a pet to their treatment regimen.
There isn’t enough evidence yet to show whether having a dog can stave off depression for people who aren’t suffering from other physical or mental problems. But there’s no doubt being around a dog is fun and can lift your mood. A pet that loves to play, runs after squirrels like mad, and rolls around on its back asking for belly rubs is sure to bring a smile to your face.
Loneliness is a bigger problem than most people realize. According to The Economist, lonely people aren’t just unhappy. They’re also more likely to have physical problems and to die young. A 2010 meta-analysis in PLOS Medicine found that people with strong social networks have a 50% lower risk of death from all causes than those with limited social networks.
For people in this second group, having a furry friend can be incredibly beneficial. A pair of studies by researchers Marian and William Banks, one published in Anthrozoös in 2005 and the other in the Journal of the American Medical Directors Association in 2008, both found that patients in long-term care facilities were less lonely when they received regular visits from a dog. The effect was most substantial when they got to spend time with the dog one-on-one rather than as part of a group.
Dog ownership can provide an undeniable boost to your self-image. It’s much harder to feel bad about yourself when there’s a creature by your side who thinks the world of you. An analysis published in Psychology Today turned up multiple studies showing that pet owners, and dog owners in particular, had higher self-esteem than those without pets. (Not all studies support this finding, however. A 1989 study published in the International Journal of Psychology found no significant differences between the two groups.)
If pet owners really do feel better about themselves, it may simply mean that people who feel good about themselves are more likely to adopt a pet in the first place. If you don’t have a lot of confidence in yourself, you could easily feel hesitant about taking on the responsibility of caring for a dog. However, attachment to the pet also seems to play a role. One of the studies reviewed in Psychology Today found that writing about a pet helped people shrug off sadness after social rejection just as effectively as writing about their best friends.
A Sense of Purpose
Finally, being a dog owner can provide a sense of purpose in life. Purpose is harder to define and measure than blood pressure or hormone levels, but studies suggest it’s just as crucial to our overall health. A 2016 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine and 2019 research published in JAMA Network Open both show that people with a strong sense of purpose are significantly less likely to die, not just from heart disease, but from all causes. And according to a 2014 study published in the Journal of Religion and Health, they also have a higher overall quality of life.
For many people, just the act of taking care of a dog can create a sense of purpose. Even if they feel depressed or lonely, the need to feed and walk the dog gives them a reason to get out of bed in the morning. And by forcing them to leave the house every day, the dog encourages them to become more involved in the world and rediscover the things that matter to them.
Having a dog isn’t just good for you as an individual. It can also help you foster stronger relationships with others. Dog owners spend more time interacting with others than nonowners, and their interactions are more positive. They also appear more trustworthy to strangers, which helps them make friends. And their relationships with the people they already know can be stronger too.
More Social Interaction
When you have a dog that needs to be walked, staying holed up in your apartment all day isn’t an option. The dog gets you out of the house and encourages you to interact more with people outside. A 1987 study in Anthrozoös evaluated how getting a service dog affected the lives of people in wheelchairs. It found that getting a dog made people more likely to go out in the evenings and also increased the number of friendly greetings they got from strangers.
This increased social activity can extend to the rest of your life as well. A 1996 study in Applied Animal Behaviour Science looked at the social lives of families both before and after they adopted dogs. The new dog owners became more likely to receive visits from friends at home and take part in leisure activities away from their homes.
Dog owners don’t just interact more with others. They also get more positive reactions from them. As the 1987 Anthrozoös study shows, people on the street are more likely to be friendly to you when you have a dog with you. That’s not just true for people with disabilities. A 2009 study in the Journal of Social Issues found that all people, with or without medical conditions, got more positive social attention in the presence of a pet.
One reason dogs improve your interactions with others is that having a dog makes you seem more trustworthy. In 2006, two scientists asked college students to rate how much they would trust a therapist based on a video. Their study, published in Anthrozoös, found that students reported higher levels of trust in the therapist when that person appeared with a dog in the video. They were more satisfied with the person in general and more willing to discuss personal matters with them.
A 2009 study, also published in Anthrozoös, found similar reactions among the general public. When experimenters asked strangers for money, asked women for their phone numbers, or dropped coins on the street, having a dog with them got them much better responses. Strangers were more likely to give them money, share their phone numbers, and help pick up the coins. The researchers concluded that the presence of the dog increased the strangers’ trust in them.
Making New Friends
As the 2009 Anthrozoös study shows, going places with your dog can make it easier to meet people. Having your dog with you when you go out for a walk can act as an icebreaker, making it easier to strike up conversations with strangers. A 2015 study in PLOS One found that pet owners in four cities — three in the U.S. and one in Australia — were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than people without pets. It also found that of all pet owners, dog owners were the most likely to regard the people they met through their pets as friends.
Dr. Elizabeth Frates, medical editor of the Harvard health report “Get Healthy, Get a Dog,” has experienced this firsthand. On the Harvard Health Blog, she explains that after moving to a new area, she didn’t meet many of her neighbors until she adopted a goldendoodle. She started going to a dog park in the mornings and chatting with other dog owners there. All the other dog owners became casual pals — and some became true friends.
Beyond making you more appealing to strangers, a dog can improve your relationships with the people you know. A 2012 analysis in Frontiers in Psychology outlines a series of studies in which dogs have:
- Increased playfulness and social interaction in children with developmental problems like autism
- Improved sociability, responsiveness, and helpfulness toward others in patients hospitalized for mental illness
- Increased social interaction between nursing home residents
- Made first-graders less aggressive and more sensitive to others
- Strengthened the relationships between substance-abuse patients and their therapists
- Improved the social skills of prison inmates
- Reduced the risk of divorce among empty nesters
Owning a dog can prevent home burglary. If you’ve ever gone to visit a friend with a large, excitable dog, the loud barking when you rang the bell probably startled you a bit. You may have even felt a little hesitant about walking in. Now think about how you’d feel hearing that same noise if you were a burglar trying to break in. Wouldn’t you be inclined to back off and try a different house?
According to interviews with real-life criminals, that’s exactly how they feel about it. A 2017 story in The Guardian reports that a panel of a dozen former burglars interviewed by Co-Op Insurance named a barking dog as one of the top deterrents that would keep them from entering a home. It ranked second only to a security camera and way ahead of other home security system staples, such as a burglar alarm.
Burglars polled by KTVB in 2017 said the same thing. The station sent letters asking for details about their housebreaking techniques to 86 prison inmates doing time for burglary. Many of the burglars said home protection or security signs didn’t deter them from breaking into a home. But a barking dog usually did — especially if it sounded like a big one.
However, not all burglars can be scared off so easily. An article by Vector Security warns that some clever criminals come armed with treats to distract the dog while they ransack the home. Worse still, some burglars go on the offensive, physically harming or even killing any dog they encounter.
According to Vector, dogs make more effective watchdogs with some training. Teach your dog basic obedience skills, like when to bark and stop barking, and how to distinguish between normal and abnormal behavior in humans. However, be cautious about going further and training your pet to attack intruders physically. There’s a danger it could attack a visitor in your home, putting you at risk of a lawsuit.
Owning a dog is a big responsibility. Dogs require a lot of care, including feeding, walking, training, grooming, and playing with them.
But for many parents, this extra work is an advantage because it helps them teach their kids responsibility. When young kids ask, “Can we get a dog?” they’re probably picturing the pet as a furry toy they can play with and then put away when they’re tired of it. Parents can counter this by explaining what caring for a dog involves and making it clear that the kids will be responsible for some of these duties. By holding them to this agreement, they can teach their children discipline and self-motivation, two valuable life skills that will serve them well as they grow.
Terry Kaye of PetMD recommends kids take on different dog care responsibilities based on their ages. Preschoolers can do things like drying the food bowl after washing or helping to brush the dog. Older children can take responsibility for feeding, walking, training, or exercising the dog.
When kids take on the task of caring for a dog, they quickly learn that this is a year-round responsibility. They can’t skip feeding or walking the dog simply because it’s inconvenient or they have something else they’d rather do. They must learn the importance of prioritizing their needs and wants in life — a lesson that will stand them in good stead throughout their lives.
Of course, parents also need to set a good example. They have to show their kids the right way to care for their pet and be diligent about carrying out their share of the dog care duties. In this way, being a dog owner can force both parents and kids to be more responsible and disciplined in their lives. If you often have trouble sticking to a schedule or getting household chores done as planned, getting a dog can be just the kick in the pants you need.
No matter how many benefits there are to owning a dog, that doesn’t mean you should adopt one if you don’t feel confident about caring for it. Being a dog owner is a big commitment, both in time and in money — though there are ways to save money on pet care. If you’re not 100% sure you can meet a dog’s needs — including food, vet bills, care, and attention — it’s not a good idea to bring one into your home.
In light of this fact, my husband and I probably won’t be adopting a dog any time soon. However, when we retire and have more free time, we’ll probably be ready to take on the care of a dog and enjoy all the benefits it can bring. A golden retriever could be just the thing to brighten up our golden years together.
Do you have a dog? If so, what do you think are the most significant benefits it brings you?