This Sunday was National Dog Day, and dog lovers across the country celebrated their furry friends. Dogs are the most popular pet in America, with around 27% of Americans owning a dog. (1) But why do we love dogs so much?
For many years, it was believed that owning dogs led to improved physical and mental health. While some research supports these claims, other research disputes them. In fact, some research has even claimed that pets lead to higher levels of mental health issues. (2) In Sweden, a survey of almost 40,000 people found that pet owners suffered from more mental health problems than those without pets. (3) Without health benefits, what is the purpose of spending hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars each year to own a dog? There are many theories. One is that owning a pet acts as an “honest signal” of one’s wealth. To be able to feed an extra mouth for no practical reason demonstrates that someone has extra money to spend. (2) Another theory is that loving dogs is a social phenomenon. In an analysis of 60 countries, only 52 of them kept dogs as pets. Of these 52 countries, dogs were only considered companions in 22 of them. (4) The way we view dogs varies widely from culture to culture. As a result, Harold Herzog of Western Carolina University claims that pet-keeping is purely cultural and is a “socially contagious” phenomenon. In other words, keeping pets is a trend, and we only keep pets because we see those around us keeping pets. To support this claim, Herzog references American Kennel Club puppy registrations, which demonstrate that different dog breeds have different cycles of popularity, similar to fashion cycles. (2)
Whether a biological or social phenomenon, our love for dogs is clearly an important part of human nature. Research has shown that when dogs and humans look into each other’s eyes, they receive a boost of the hormone oxytocin. (5) Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” is responsible for a variety of social behavior, including the bond between the mother and child. (6) In the experiment, 30 human owners and their dogs had oxytocin levels measured before and after looking into each other’s eyes. On average, the dogs had a 130 percent rise in oxytocin levels, while the owners had a 300 percent increase. This indicates we love our dogs like we would love our children. Furthermore, the childlike behavior exhibited by dogs, such as licking and dependence, also causes humans to view dogs as their children. (7) This research demonstrates that the bonds between dogs and humans resembles the bonds between humans.
In fact, we might even love dogs more than we love humans. Another experiment suggests that humans are more empathetic to dogs than adult humans. In this experiment, 240 students were given fake newspaper clippings about an attack on either a one-year-old baby, a 30-year-old adult, a puppy, or a six-year-old dog. Then, participants were asked questions that determined how much they empathized with the victim. The empathy levels for the baby, puppy, and adult dog were all similar, but the empathy levels for the adult human fell far behind. The researchers concluded that “Subjects did not view their dogs as animals, but rather as ‘fur babies,’ or family members alongside human children.” (8) This could explain why dogs receive so much love and attention – people view them as part of the family.
Fortunately, dogs feel the same way! Brain scans of dogs revealed that the scent of their owner activated the “reward center” of their brains. (9) This shows that dogs also see us as their families, and rely on humans for affection as well as protection. Additionally, new research reveals that dogs make more facial movements when a human is paying attention to them. For example, when wanting attention from a human, dogs would make their eyes bigger and raise their eyebrows, producing the famous “puppy eyes.” Previously, it had been thought that facial expressions were subconscious. So, the next time you see your dog, give him or her some attention!
(1) Gallup, Inc. “Americans and Their Pets.” com, Gallup, Inc., 21 Dec. 2006, news.gallup.com/poll/25969/americans-their-pets.aspx.
(2) Hogenboom, Melissa. “Earth – Why Do We Love Our Pets so Much?” BBC News, BBC, 29 May 2015, bbc.com/earth/story/20150530-why-do-we-love-our-pets-so-much.
(3) Müllersdorf, Maria, et al. “Aspects of Health, Physical/Leisure Activities, Work and Socio-Demographics Associated with Pet Ownership in Sweden.” Sage Journals, Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 28 Aug. 2009, journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1403494809344358.
(4) Gray, Peter B., and Sharon M. Young. “Human–Pet Dynamics in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” Taylor & Francis, Informa UK Limited, 28 Apr. 2015, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.2752/175303711X12923300467285.
(5) Nagasawa, Miho, et al. “Oxytocin-Gaze Positive Loop and the Coevolution of Human-Dog Bonds.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 17 Apr. 2015, science.sciencemag.org/content/348/6232/333.
(6) MacGill, Markus. “Oxytocin: The Love Hormone?” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 4 Sept. 2017, medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275795.php.
(7) Kaplan, Sarah. “Dear Science: Why Do We Love Our Pets?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 6 Feb. 2017, http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/02/06/dear-science-why-do-we-love-our-pets/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.8e4411f097b3.
(8) Dodgson, Lindsay. “People Really Do Love Dogs More than Other Humans, According to a New Study.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 26 Aug. 2018, http://www.businessinsider.com/humans-love-dogs-more-than-other-humans-2017-11.
(9) Berns, Gregory S., and S. “Scent of the Familiar: An FMRI Study of Canine Brain Responses to Familiar and Unfamiliar Human and Dog Odors.” Egyptian Journal of Medical Human Genetics, Elsevier, 6 Mar. 2014, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0376635714000473.
(10) Kaminski, Juliane, et al. “Human Attention Affects Facial Expressions in Domestic Dogs.” Nature News, Nature Publishing Group, 19 Oct. 2017, http://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-017-12781-x.