Imagine, for a moment, that you’ve had a bad day. Think of how it would feel like to go through it alone – making dinner by yourself, maybe watching TV as an attempt at distraction, the feeling of being unable to sleep. Now, imagine going through it with a dog. Think of how a dog might stand at your feet as you cook dinner, eagerly hoping for a taste. Or how they might lay their head in your lap as you watch TV. Or, sensing your sadness, how they might cuddle up next to you, showing love as only they can, as you drift into sleep.
Everyone who’s ever owned a dog, probably from the beginning of time, knows that life is better with a canine companion. And it turns out that science is starting to verify what humans have always instinctually known, with the therapeutic value of owning a pet, particularly a dog, being increasingly recognized by researchers.
So what is it that gives dogs this magical ability to make us feel better?
One of the key factors appears to be social recognition, which is the process of identifying another being as significant to you. These types of meaningful relationships are essential for our well-being – without them we become lonely, anxious, or even mentally or physically unwell. Simply put, we need to feel bonded with one another to truly thrive. And the bond we experience with our pets, it seems, can fulfill that need.
Studies show that the bond between an owner and their pet is similar to the bond between a mother and her baby. If you’ve ever called your dog “your baby,” it’s because you recognize them on the same neural level. A small study of functional MRI brain scans found that when 18 women were shown images of their child and their pet dog, they had similar responses in regions of the brain involved in reward, emotion, and affiliation.
We are hardwired to feel good when we experience closeness with another being. A key component of this is oxytocin, the “feel-good hormone,” which plays a significant role in our social behavior – especially in childbirth, the formation of trust, affection, mother-infant bonding, and, you guessed it, owner-pet bonding.
Playing and cuddling with your pet (and staring adoringly into their eyes) has been shown to increase the body’s production of oxytocin. Perhaps you’ve heard of the stress hormone cortisol, which makes you feel hostile, irritable, and anxious. Oxytocin does the exact opposite, promoting feelings of calm, contentment, and well-being. Your pet is, quite literally, an antidote to stress.
What’s more, dogs are some of our greatest teachers. They embody innocence, playfulness, and an openness to life that we all remember from when we were children. And like children, they naturally live in the present moment. Have you ever seen a dog worrying over the dumb thing they did this morning or stressed about their big day tomorrow? They naturally show us the simple joys of basking in the afternoon sun or taking in all sights, smells, and experiences on a morning walk. They remind us that happiness can only be found in one place – the here and now.
And of course, dogs are masters of unconditional love. They care nothing for race, gender, status, job title, or clothing size. They forgive instantly and believe deeply in our inherent goodness. They are willing and eager to see us as our best selves and to help us make our way there.