When your dog bounds towards you with the unbridled excitement equivalent to a celebrity spotting and gives you one big, wet lick on your cheek the minute you come home, it’s hard to imagine a better instant mood-booster. But there are a myriad of other benefits to welcoming a furry friend into your fold, from increased self-esteem to more exercise and less loneliness.Once you’ve decided to bring a dog into your home, find out how you can make the most out of your time with your pup—and gain those health and beauty benefits to boot.
Cuddle with your dog: Fido won’t do you much good if he’s always off in a corner by himself. Alan Beck, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University School of Veterinary Medicine and his co-researcher Aaron Katcher found in the early ‘80s that when people interact with dogs, “you actually get a drop in blood pressure—a true relaxation response,” he says. More recently, researchers in Japan found that dog owners who were bonded to their pets experienced a spike in oxytocin—a neurotransmitter that helps us cope with stress—from simply meeting their dogs’ gazes.We’re social animals, so we gravitate toward this kind of bonding behavior: “Every culture has touch as a positive thing, because social animals have to be near each other,” Beck says. Feeling a bit stressed? Try taking a few moments to pet or cuddle with your pup. He’ll benefit from it, too.
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Talk to your neighbors: A lot of the stigma against talking to strangers on the street disappears when you’re walking with your dog. A study done in 2000 found that an experimenter walking a dog had three times as many social interactions than when she walked alone. That’s because animals can serve as social facilitators, according to Beck. This isn’t just a matter of small talk: what starts as a casual chat at the dog run can carry over into friendship or even a long-term relationship. (On a personal note, since I got a dog six months ago, I’ve become friendly with a good majority of the people in my building. I live in New York City, and trust me, this isn’t the type of place where neighbors become friends.) Once in a while, take out those iPhone earbuds and just stroll with your four-legged friend. You never know when that cute guy with the Husky will be walking down your block.
Play with your dog: “The greatest pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him, and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself, too,” Samuel Butler, the novelist, once said. As we age, it’s so easy to get caught up in our work and our daily list of “to do’s” that we forget how to play. If you let him, your dog can be a portal into a more visceral, imaginative, emotional world—and a less self-conscious one.In a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air, Jonah Lehrer points out that in fourth grade, kids start to become aware of the possibility of making mistakes, which can hugely limit their artistic creativity. “All of a sudden, they’re aware that you can draw the wrong line, you can put the brush in the wrong place,” he says. Being foolish with our dogs can—momentarily and hopefully beyond—push us out of this state of self-reproach.“Playfulness is the mindset of a sense of joy and interacting in a healthy manner,” says Aubrey Fine, a professor at California State Polytechnic University and an expert on the human-animal bond. “Having a dog in your life definitely provides you with an outlet to release that inner child, so to speak. How many of us have acted silly in front of our pets, and we wouldn’t act that way in front of our friends?”
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Playing with your dog also focuses your attention. “It keeps you in the moment,” says Beck. “So when you’re talking and playing with your dog, your mind is not free to worry. We intuitively try and do this anyway—we listen to music, we sit in a coffee shop, we watch TV—just to keep our minds focused on what’s going on right now. But if that focus is nature or an animal, it’s that much easier.”
Walk your dog: Forget about relying heavily on potty pads. Getting out a few times a day with your dog can help you not only meet people, but also incorporate exercise into your daily routine. And you already know about the incredible benefits of exercise, from the emotional—more confidence and lower stress levels—to the physical, like a stronger heart, lower blood sugar, more restful sleep, lower cholesterol, and better memory. “Even basic walking is one of the best exercises you can do, for general health and weight management,” Beck says. “The dog is a great trigger for that, because I’ve never seen a dog that doesn’t want to walk anymore.” So slip on your sneakers, grab a leash and go.
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Tune in to your dog: Dogs are very attuned to humans’ moods, which makes them a good gauge of what we’re feeling. They’re “an emotional barometer,” as Fine puts it. “Dogs have been domesticated for about 12,000 years,” he says. “One of the things that research has shown is dogs have learned over these years, perhaps better than any other being, how to read our non-verbal behavior.”The trouble comes when we’re too preoccupied to notice. If you tend toward destructive behaviors like binge eating, which often happens in a trance-like state, practice using your dog’s reaction—likely an anxious one that mirrors your own mood—as a cue to pause and think. Why are you digging into that ice cream container with such ferocity? Your pup won’t have the answer, but his presence is a good reminder to seek it yourself.