How and Why Dogs Make Us Happy

August 5, 2019

How and Why Dogs Make Us Happy

Every dog owner can relate to the feelings of joy and happiness when their pup wags its tail cheerfully. The bond between humans and their furry friends has lasted for thousands of years. Scientists used to believe that this relationship started 14,000 years ago, but new research places the date much earlier, suggesting that man may have domesticated the dog more than 35,000 years ago. It’s clear that our relationship with them has been going on for quite awhile.

But do dogs really make us happy? And if so, how? There is a lot of evidence that our furry friends have a therapeutic effect on our psyche. New studies indicate that this link is much more fundamental than we previously thought.

Human Animal Connection

Biologists Dr. Colin Grove and Robert Wayne have done recent studies that show that humans could have domesticated dogs 100,000 years ago. Their studies on the DNA from hundreds of dog and wolf samples also show that the wolf was the real ancestor of the dog.

There are several ways that this is significant when it comes to connection with humans. Wolves are pack animals, for example, and dogs took the hunting pack instinct when they left their fellow wolves. So unlike other animals, they evolved to see us as part of their pack.

The implication of this is that the bond between owner and pet has to do with more than hunting and food. It was and is also important for companionship. This new partnership led to a divergence in the DNA of the wolf. But it is not just the wolf that changed, but man, too. Both no longer had to rely on sheer strength to survive. As a result, there was greater genetic divergence that couldn’t have happened without this bond.

A Sense of Belonging

It has been shown that interactions between dogs and their owners cause both to produce oxytocin. Oxytocin is a bonding hormone.  In social interactions, the hormone encourages bonding in individuals of similar characteristics. We have evolved alongside our furry friends for long enough that both man and dog see the other as part of the pack. 

Even dogs experience an enhanced sense of well being. It is rare for animals to be comfortable making eye contact with humans, but dogs release feel good hormones like oxytocin when they do. This makes them more trusting when interacting with their owners.

Reduce Stress

Petting your dog not only boosts oxytocin but also brings down cortisol levels. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone. It controls motivation, fear, and mood. People who take their dogs to work regularly experience lower levels of stress. According to researchers from the University of New York, dog owners also demonstrated a greater capacity to recover from challenges.

Dogs Make Us Better People

In many ways, spending time with our canine buddies encourages us to be better people. When we take them out for a walk, they are encouraging us to get some exercise. When we pet them, we release oxytocin and reduce cortisol levels. Jogging or walking alongside your dog, then, becomes a more pleasurable experience than what you might experience on your own.

The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed evidence that indicated pet owners fared better when faced with certain stressors. They were more likely to exercise and had a strong sense of self esteem. Dogs also made owners more outgoing and they were more inclined to healthier relationships. Specifically, it was found that their relationships were not as affected by fear of rejection or unhealthy preoccupation.

Also, because the dog encourages its owners to go outside, it reduces the risk of depression thanks to greater exposure to vitamin D, a nutrient that has a significant impact on our mental well being. Combined with the endorphins released during exercise, we get a stronger sense mental strength when walking with our canine friends.

Man’s initial intention was to use the dog as a hunting tool, but then they realized that dogs provided great companionship on those nights they couldn’t find game. Since then, humans have impacted the direction of the evolution of the dog. But it is only fair to acknowledge that our best friend in the animal kingdom has changed us in a lot of positive ways, too.