Dogs have recently been shown to extend the lives of their owners, which is nothing new to anyone who has owned a dog. They have been called “Man’s Best Friend” for almost 150 years, and therapy dogs have been used to support the physical and mental health needs of people with disabilities since the late 1800’s. Nearly a hundred years after the concept of service and therapy dogs was defined, Congress enacted the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that recognized how important service dogs are in their owner’s physical and mental lives. However, a recent expansive scientific study changed how people look at the general health benefits of dog ownership. This study followed 3.4 million people in Sweden for over 12 years and found “robust evidence of a link between dog ownership and health outcomes” (Mubanga, Byberg, Ingelsson, & Fall, 2016). Adopting a dog has physical and mental therapeutic benefits for people of all age, and across every socioeconomic group through additional social connectivity, increased exercise and the growth in well-being.
Social connectivity between neighbors and friends increase as a new dog owner expands the world around them while walking their dog to the dog park or cafe. People are proud of their dog and engage with others who they previously did not even know. More time is spent in new social environments with other people sharing stories of their beloved dogs. Individuals who live alone benefit even more as they have a higher risk of early death. Through these new social connections, everyone benefits from senior citizens living in assisted living facilities (While, 2017) to prisoners participating in dog therapy programs in Australia (Mulcahy & McLaughlin, 2013). An increase in a dog owner’s social connectivity will also provide new additional physical activities as they begin spending more time outside with their new puppy or dog.
An increase in exercise is an unexpected benefit from these new responsibilities of a dog owner, leading to improved overall physical health. Dogs require much more activity than any other type of house pet, such as a cat or goldfish. There is an immediate improvement in someone’s health, regardless of their age or where they live. “Dog owners engage in more physical activity than non-dog owners” (While, 2017) through walking to dog parks and throughout their neighborhoods. This exercise can improve cardiovascular health and overall health because “taking care of a dog promotes people to stay alive and live a healthier lifestyle” (Mubanga, Byberg, Ingelsson, & Fall, 2016). A critical benefit to dog ownership is that the increased social connectivity and change in physical health, contributes to a new sense of purpose in their life and overall growth in well-being.
This growth in well-being develops as the dog owner’s life becomes filled with new friends, feeling stronger and hope for the future. Dogs can provide a great deal of emotional support and can help people struggling with depression, feelings of inadequacy and the loss of social interaction with others. The introduction of dogs into the lives of senior citizens living in assisted living facilities in Britain has proven to be an effective way to increase someone’s will to live. This program has been shown to promote well-being and purpose in the previously lonely and isolated lives of this population. A similar program was launched throughout the prison program in Australia and achieved the same results. Studies show that the effect of human-animal contact on psychological health is often more apparent when there is a higher incidence of ill-health. Vast research has documented a multitude of positive effects on human health and well-being. The emotional support and companionship that a dog provides allow people to rejoin their world and live a fuller life filled with joy and purpose.
Dog ownership can transform a person’s life as they become more socially involved with their community, while their physical health improves along with a boost in psychological health and well-being as well. The benefits of having a dog are endless and yet different for each person, and extending someone’s life is a compelling benefit of caring for a dog. However, that will not cause someone to run out and adopt a dog purely for that reason. It is the endless joy, unlimited love and emotional companionship that a dog gives with all their heart that beckons a dog owner to adopt a new puppy or dog even days after losing their beloved dog. They save a life one day at a time with the wag of their tail and a quick little lick of love. Once a dog owner, always a dog owner.