The lifespan of a dog owner

An exclusive extract from 'The Psychology of Dog Ownership', by Theresa Barlow and Craig Roberts, published by Routledge Psychology as part of their 'The Psychology of Everything' series.

Owning a dog is an integral part of many peoples’ lives from childhood through adolescence and adulthood up until older age. Everyone has their reasons for owning a dog but does research support any of those reasons? Can owning a dog truly be a benefit to each and every owner? If so, why doesn’t everyone own a dog?

Childhood and adolescence 

In 2003, Gail Melson of Purdue University reviewed the evidence surrounding owning a pet (e.g. dog) and childhood development.

In terms of early life development of thinking skills and how we see the world, it would appear that dogs are intriguing to very young humans. Research has shown that children as young as six months would rather smile at, hold, follow and make sounds towards a pet dog than battery-operated life-like models of cats and dogs. As age progresses, children still prefer to pat and kiss a dog compared to stuffed animals.The stimulation that a ‘real dog’ gives a child is that of ‘predictable unpredictability’ which stimulates cognitive curiosity. In addition, when a child is emotionally investing in a situation they are more likely to retain the information and then use it again in different situations. Therefore, owning a dog from a very young age may actually improve the cognitive ‘prowess’ of children.

In terms of social and emotional development, pet ownership in general is important. Children, when asked to name the ten most important individuals in their lives tend to fill two of those places with their pet dog or other animal! Social support is a significant factor in the physical and psychological lives of children. Many who own dogs between the ages of seven and ten years do gain a great deal of social support from them. For example, children who own dogs are more likely to talk to them about being sad, happy and angry plus secrets than their siblings or parents. Children also tend to mention their pet (e.g. dog) when asked directly who would they turn to, to talk about their emotions. It is then not surprising that children who own dogs and other animals develop nurturance skills quickly once they realise that a dog needs to be cared for throughout its life.

In terms of physical health, a lot of people believe that dog owners, irrespective of age, will be ‘fitter and healthier’ as they have to walk their dogs on a daily basis. Later on in this chapter we will see if this is true for adults, but is this argument supported by research using children as participants?

Carri Westgarth and colleagues from the University of Liverpool in 2016 examined if there was an association between dog ownership and fitness in children. This was one of the first studies to examine this link in children. A sample of over 1,000 children from 31 schools who were attending a SportsLinx Fitness Fun Day completed a Child Lifestyle and Pets Questionnaire. Alongside this, height and weight measures were taken and all children participated in a fitnesstest (which was part of their SportsLinx day anyway). Contrary to the popular belief surrounding the health benefits of walking a dog, those who owned a dog were equal in fitness status to those who did not own a dog currently. Therefore, the research team were left to conclude that the activity of walking a dog is not sufficient enough to have a direct impact on fitness levels in children.

However, a study published in 2010 by Christopher Owen as part of the Child Heart and Health Study in England did find some impact of dog ownership on physical activity. In a sample of over 2,000 nine- and ten-year-olds, children who had a family dog spent more time in light to vigorous physical activities, had higher levels of activity counts and registered more steps than non-dog-owning children. The research team were quick to note that the results could be either a direct influence of having a dog or that more active people choose to own dogs so more research is needed to be able to show which of these is true. 

Is there a darker side to dog ownership in childhood?

For many years there has been a ‘Progression or Graduation Hypothesis’ being tested attempting to link negative aspects of dog ownership exhibited by children and subsequent adolescent and adulthood behaviours. This hypothesis states that children who abuse animals such as dogs,‘progress’ or ‘graduate’ toaggression against humans when they are older.

Therefore, does evidence of children being cruel to dogs and other animals link in any way to criminal behaviours in adulthood?

Suzanne Tallichet from Morehead State University and Christopher Hensley from the University of Tennessee in 2009 conducted one of the first direct tests of this potential link. A sample of 216 inmates across three prisons completed a questionnaire. This contained a range of questions about childhood animal cruelty and adulthood criminal activities. Extra questions were asked about whether they had hurt animals (including dogs) alone, if they had attempted to cover upany cruelty they had been involved with in childhood and whether the cruelty had upset them. Data was also collected on how many acts of cruelty they had engaged in and how old they were when they first started. It was revealed from the analyses that the only strong predictor of later adult violence-related behaviour was if the act(s) of animal cruelty had been concealed in childhood above any other factor. Therefore, it would appear that those who engaged in acts of animal-(including dog-) related cruelty and were never ‘found out’ or told anyone were most likely to show multiple acts of violence inadulthood.

Prior to this study, Bill Henry and Cheryl Sanders from the Metropolitan State College of Denver, in 2007, researched if there was a connection between animal abuse and bullying. They investigated a sample of 185 male students aged 18 to 48 years. They completed surveys about their experiences with animals (including dogs), participation in animal abuse (including frequency of), attitudes towards the treatment of animals and experiences as a bully/victim. Overall, those who had experienced high levels of physical bullying but also engaged in high levels of physical bullying were the males who had participated in numerous acts of animal/dog cruelty. The same group also showed the lowest levels of sensitivity attitudes towards animal cruelty. However, it should be noted that the same variables did not link to males who only participated once in an act of animal cruelty. This highlights the need for parents/caregivers to keep a careful eye on how their children interact with their pet dogs at home as any signs of abuse may be indicators of bullying either as a victim or perpetrator.

Adulthood 

Previously we had seen how children who owned dogs and walked them did not show increased health on a variety of measures. However, is the same true for adults?

In 2009, Koichiro Oka and Ai Shibata from Waseda University in Japan tested out whether dog ownership is linked to health-related physical activity in Japanese adults. The research used over 5,000 participants with a range of questionnaires completed online.These included a short questionnaire about physical activity, questions about pet ownership (to establish type of pet(s) owned) and arange of demographics were recorded (e.g. gender, marital status, income). From the physical activity questionnaire, the researchers could see estimates of moderate/vigorous physical activity, amount of walking engaged in and sedentary behaviour. The results were as follows:

  • Dog owners had larger amounts of moderate/vigorous physical activity compared to owners of other animals and current non- petowners
  • For both amount of walking engaged in and sedentary behaviour, dog owners showed more favourable data compared to the non- pet owners
  • Dog owners were 1.5 times more likely to meet the minimum physical activity recommendations inJapan

Therefore, these results are different to those where children are participants. It would appear that owning a dog brings about beneficial health behaviours in adulthood.

Older age

A great deal of early research into the human-dog ownership bond and potential health benefits did focus on older adults as participants. However, these tended to be the effects of dogs in care homes and residential settings where the older adults were not having to deal with any of the day-to-day activities that dog owners in their own homes would have to (e.g. walking the dog,vet visits, feeding, cleaning up). However, there are benefits too such as companionship and relief from loneliness. When research began to look at dog owners who were choosing to own the dog (sometimes referred to as community-dwellers) the results became mixed. My own large-scale research which I presented at conferences in Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Scotland clearly showed differences between owners and non-pet owners on a range of psychological and physical health measures such as loneliness, general health and depression. However, when more comprehensive analysis took place that examined how a range of factors (including pet ownership status but also demographics like gender, marital status and age alongside aspects like level of social support) affected physical and psychological health, a different result emerged: owning a dog does have benefits forolder adults but only under certain circumstances. Forexample, older adults living alone with little social contact from friends or family benefit immensely from dog ownership especially in terms of loneliness. However, if a solid human social network is evident then dog ownership only has a minimal impact.

Roland Thorpe and a group of researchers in the United States who formed the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study Group examined something we have already looked at in childhood and adulthood: dog ownership and walking behaviour. They examined over 2,500 older adults (aged 71 to 82) over 36 months. A series of measures were taken including walking behaviour, mobility, health variables and demographics. A range of results emerged: 

  • Dog walkers were much more likely to reach the recommended 150 minutes of walking per week than dog owners who did not walk theirdog(s)
  • This was also true for dog walkers and non-dog owners who walked at least three times per week
  • Dog walkers tended to show faster ‘usual’ and ‘rapid’ walking speeds
  • Three years later, the dog walkers were around two times more likely to meet the 150 minutes per week recommendation compared to the rest of the sample

Therefore, it would appear that those who own a dog and walk it manage to keep mobile and walk for longer than those who do not own a dog or own a dog and they do not walk it. This could have implications for older adults to increase their mobility levels: dog-walking groups! 

This interaction between owning a dog and actually walking it as a benefit physically was mirrored by Kimberlee Gretebeck in 2013 from the University of Wisconsin. Over 1,000 adults completed measures of physical activity, physical functioning of dog ownership status. Their results complemented those of Thorpe: dog owners who walk their dogs revealed more walking time, more walks, increased physical activity and functional ability. Hence it would appear that having the ‘pet obligation’ of walking a dog has great benefits for older adults that is not really seen in dog owners who are young.

Could there be psychological benefits of dog walking in older adults? So far we have examined the role of dog walking on physical activity. However, does walking a dog initiate human social contact/ support when you meet other people who are out walking too? Early research in this field was done by John Rogers at the University of California. Dog owners were asked to take two walks: one with their dog and one alone. Transcriptions of all conversations were analysed. The majority of content in conversations when dogs were present was the owner instructing the dog or talking about the dogs’ wishes and needs. Those passing by would frequently talk about the dog even when it was not present. When the dog owners conversed they often talked about the present whereas non-dog owners talked more about the past. Part of the sample also completed a series of measuresfor well-being. Current dog owners showed significantly more satisfaction with their physical, emotional and social well-being. Could this be due to simply going out walking with a dog and engaging in casual conversations? It would appear that this could be the case.

Finally, in 2008 Sarah Knight and Victoria Edwards from the University of Portsmouth examined if there were any physical, social and/or psychological benefits of dog ownership in older age. They conducted focus groups (ten in total) to examine if dog owners had similar beliefs about the potential benefits of owning a dog. The average age of the participants was 60 years. There was a 3:1 ratio of females to  males. Over 80% had owned dogs all of their lives. Once all of the transcripts had been analysed, there were some common themes associated with the perceived benefits of owning a dog. These included: 

  • Perceived physical benefits: All participants stated that owning a dog was good for their health via walking
  • Perceived psychological benefits:These included giving companionship, comfort and unconditional love
  • Dogs as a family member: The status given to a dog matched other people within a family network
  • Dogs as therapists: Examples included talking to their dogs about problems and then feeling comforted
  • Dogs as providers of safety, security and protection
  • Social benefits of interacting because of their dog(s): This included human social interaction when out walking with their dog as it is with like-minded people

Age-free evidence

By age-free evidence we mean studies that have used a sample of participants across a wide age group so we cannot specifically pinpoint it to a lifespan developmental phase (e.g.adolescence).

One study that examined the role of dog ownership in depression was conducted by Krista Cline from the University of Missouri and published in 2010. She examined a sample of 201 participants to see if dog ownership played a role in reducing depressive feelings. Participants were aged 19 to 94 years. They completed a battery of questionnaires to measure:

  • Depression
  • Dog ownership status
  • Satisfaction with human social support
  • Physical activity
  • Demographics

Whilst she reported that dog ownership by itself did not directly affect depression, she did find the following:

1 The relationship between owning a dog and depression had nothing to do with the level of human social support a person was having

2 The same was true for physical activity
3 There was an interaction effect between dog ownership and marital status. That is, the beneficial effects of owning a dog on depression are far greater for single individuals than those who are married.
4   The same interaction was seen for dog ownership and ‘sex’. The positive effects were greater for females over males. 

Therefore, it would appear that dogs do aid depression in females who are single the greatest. 

A common avenue of research as can be seen from this chapter is whether owning a dog means you walk more as a result of that ownership. Shane Brown and Ryan Rhodes from the University of Victoria in Canada examined this link using a wide range age sample in 2006. A random sample of men and women aged 20 to 80 years completed questionnaires about leisure-time walking, general physical activity, dog ownership (including their obligations as a dog owner) and demographics. The main results were: 

  • Dog owners spent more time in mild to moderate physical activities compared to non-dog owners
  • Dog owners walked for an average of 300 minutes per week compared to 168 minutes for non-dog owners
  • Dog owners who felt more obligation to undertake things like walking the dog, unsurprisingly, walked more often

They concluded that for those who are willing to take on the responsibility of dog ownership, this could be a ‘viable strategy’ for increasing physical activity in people who, for physical and psychological reasons, ought to.

Finally, are there dog and/or owner characteristics that could affect the dog-owner relationship? Iben Meyer and Björn Forkman from the University of Copenhagen in 2014 tested out this idea. Over 42 Danish dog owners completed an online questionnaire which consisted of two parts:

1   General questions about themselves and their dog(s)

2   The Monash Dog Owner Relationship Scale (MDORS) which allows a cost-benefit analysis to be made of the dog-owner relationship 

All of the participants had previously taken part in the Danish Dog MentalityAssessment(DDMA).The results from the online questionnaire could then be matched with each dog that took part in the DDMA.

Using a statistical technique to group similar behaviours seen in the dogs, a total of five ‘dog personality traits’ emerged: 

  • Chase proneness: This involves the dog following and grabbing
  • Non-social fear:This involves behaviours like avoiding the sudden appearance of objects and being startled by a metallic noise
  • Playfulness: This involves the dog grabbing and playing tug-of-war
  • Social fear: This involves behaviours like avoidance and aggression
  • Sociability: This involves a set greeting reaction, being co-operative and being handled with no problems

The only ‘dog personality trait’ to have an effect on the MDORS scores was social fear. That is, if the dog showed this trait in the DDMA tests then the owner was more likely to feel more emotionally close to that dog. No other ‘dog personality trait’ predicted MDORS scores. However, when owner characteristics were examined, two main factors emerged:

1 Dog owners who did not have children were more emotionally close to theirdog(s)

2 If the dog is only perceived as being company (rather than, say, being an integral part of the family), then that owner was less emotionally close to their dog(s) 

Therefore, it would appear that different owner and dog traits can affect the emotional bond between dog and owner. More research would be welcomed in this area to try to uncover other dog- and owner-related variables that have an impact on the beneficial nature of the dog-owner relationship.

Theories of 'health' benefits 

There has been a long-standing argument within the research community as to why there could be benefits for owning a dog. There are three main schools of thought:

1   There is a direct effect of dog ownership on health. That is, owning a dog directly benefits your physical and psychological health.

2   There is an indirect effect of dog ownership on health. That is, owning a dog increases a person’s contact with other people and this in turn benefits your physical and psychological health. For example, going out on family walks with the dog or communi cating with children whilst out walking.

3   There is a non-causal association between dog ownership and health. That is, factors like your age, personality or health status have an impact on your decision to own a dog which then produces a ‘fake link’ between dog ownership and physical and psychological health.

Therefore, when reading research about dog ownership and potential physical and psychological health benefits, try to work out which of the three competing theories is being best supported by the study’s findings.

- Find out more about The Psychology of Dog Ownership', and about the 'Psychology of Everything' series from Routledge.

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber