If you own a dog, those morning and evening walks are an important part of the daily routine – at least, if you want to keep your pet happy and your carpets clean. But, researchers say, there are also fringe benefits beyond the exercise you get. They have now proven how much easier it is to meet people when you have a dog.
"Dogs act as social 'ice breakers' and help people strike up friendly conversation with others," says Dr. June McNicholas, senior research fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. "We are probably much more sociable than society allows us. It is difficult for us to strike up a conversation with a complete stranger – all sorts of ulterior motives may be suspected. But being with a dog (or other pet) gives a safe, non-threatening, neutral topic to start a conversation."
Two Studies – Same Result
"Most people, out for a walk with their dog," says McNicholas, "can't help but meet others." As proof, she and her associates conducted two studies last winter to test the social catalyst effect of dogs. Guide dogs were used in both studies (although they were not identifiable as such), since they are trained to ignore passersby. This was important, as it ensured that approaches to the handlers were instigated by other people, not the dogs.
In the first study, McNicholas went about her daily routines of taking children to school, walking to classes at the university, shopping and so forth for a period of 10 days, 5 with the dog and 5 without. The number of times people stopped to talk was recorded, noting whether the talkers were friends, acquaintances or strangers.
The result: Being in the company of a dog increased people's interactions. In fact, the presence of the dog almost tripled the number of casual acquaintances who spoke to McNicholas and raised the number of total strangers who spoke to her from three, when without the dog, to 65 when she was with the dog.
The second study sought to examine whether approaches might be reduced if either the appearance of the handler and/or the dog were made more intimidating. A male handler took a large black dog on walks in the park. Sometimes, the handler was dressed very sharply and the dog was in a colored collar and lead; other times the handler dressed scruffily and the dog wore a studded collar and a frayed rope as a lead.
The findings: Although fewer people spoke to the handler when he was scruffily dressed and alone than when he was sharply dressed and alone, the effect on social exchanges when the dog was present remained strong, no matter what the appearance of the dog or the handler.
What the Studies Mean
So what does all this mean? "If people meet people, some may become friends," says McNicholas. This may be of particular importance to people who feel isolated – some older people, for example. It may also have a special benefit for owners of guide dogs for the blind, assistance dogs for people with disabilities, and hearing dogs for the deaf.
"We found that people with an assistance dog rated the social contact made as being as valuable as the actual work the dog had been trained to do," McNicholas says. "This was because people are not very good at knowing how to approach people with disabilities, so they don't. It's not prejudice, but it hurts. An assistance dog not only means that people have a way of making contact, but the person with the disability is no longer seen as someone who can't do things. Rather, they are seen as skilled handlers of a highly-trained working dog."