Will having a dog *actually* make you happier?

Friends — this is a very serious investigation.

Are our furry friends actually making us happier, or have we all been fooled by their puppy dog eyes?

My Havanese dog Poppy is such a joy. But although she is very cute, awfully affectionate and a small ball of fluff... I'm not ashamed to say that she's hard work. Most dogs are. They give you their all, but in return, you have to give them 100 per cent too. Sometimes, that's pretty tiring. And it's not spoken about enough. 

Watch: To dogs, our best friends. Post continues below.

Video via Mamamia.

After having my dog for three years now, I've reflected on that time and think I'm an overall happier person, or maybe a more fulfilled person. 

But is it the dog specifically that has made me chirpier? Popular culture tells us yes, but let's see what science says. 

Dogs are intuitive. And nice.

Dr Michelle Farbotko is a clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of experience and she is also the Founder and Director of W. A. G. Therapy, an animal-assisted psychology clinic in Brisbane. At the clinic they have trained therapy dogs as part of their work to help kids, teens and adults with mental health needs.


She is also one of only two people in Australia trained through the International Institute of Animal-Assisted Play Therapy — so when it comes to this subject, she's clearly well-versed.

Over the years, Dr Farbotko says it's been heartwarming to see how having a dog on hand to pat can help someone open up about their mental health.

"A young person that I was working with — who, for context, has autism, depression and is trans — wouldn't talk in our sessions and also struggled with eye contact. I would start each session by getting her to teach one of our therapy dogs a trick. I could see the joy that the dog brought her, and it's fascinating to see someone change in the presence of a dog that they trust and feel a bond with," she explains.


If you're wondering if it's something specific about dogs, or if any old pet will bring you joy, dogs win out over cats as the pet that makes us the happiest. And we make them happy, too! 

Research published in 2016 shows that when dogs and their owners interact, both release oxytocin — aka those good ol' love hormones. But while dogs get a 57.2 percent oxytocin boost when they interact with their owners, cats only get a 12 percent boost. 

In other words, your dog truly adores you. Your cat just accepts your presence.

Another study found that although pet owners in general are more satisfied with their life than non pet-owners, people with dogs score higher on all aspects of wellbeing than cat owners.

What science tells us.

Pam Maroney is a mental health occupational therapist and the Co-Founder of Kemar Meaningful Directions. She has also published two recent scientific journal articles focusing on using pet dogs to support mental health.


She says that after working at a psychiatric rehabilitation facility for adults experiencing mental illnesses, and having a resident dog there, she has seen the benefits of having access to and engaging with a dog. 

From her research and other scientific studies, Maroney says dogs can provide the following benefits: 

  • Emotional support
  • Improvement in mood
  • Stress relief and relaxation
  • Increased feelings of positivity
  • Increased feelings of connectivity
  • Improved motivation, in particular to exercise
  • Help with socialisation
  • A sense of companionship and protection
  • Reduced feelings of loneliness and boredom.

Just to name a few...

"My research was mainly focused on benefits of owning a pet dog on people experiencing mental illnesses, however the findings of my studies that I undertook also showed that very similar benefits were also experienced by those that do not have a mental illness," she notes. 

Dr Farbotko adds: "There's a lot of research that says petting an animal releases a lot of those feel-good hormones, such as oxytocin. It's kind of like the love hormone that makes us feel better and more relaxed. And that has flow-on effects, it can lower your heart rate, make your muscles less tense. They can just bring a lot of good."

Looks like science is all yay, no nay, for dogs.

The downsides of having a dog. 

Look, having a dog isn't all sunshine and rainbows, let me tell you.

So to help keep things balanced here — this is a very serious investigation, after all — I've compiled a list of the pain-in-the-arse downsides of having a dog. 

  • The financial cost. First, if you're choosing to buy from a breeder, the designer dogs can set you back thousands of dollars. A friend of mine recently purchased her French Bulldog for $9,000... Then you have to consider the financial cost throughout the dog's life. There's the food, the toilet mats if relevant, the heartworm and tick medication, the grooming, the toys, the leads, the vet bills, the de-sexing surgery, plus any other future medical dramas. I'm part of a breed-specific Facebook group related to my own dog, and one of the owners in the group had to raise thousands to fund the dog's $40,000 medical bill after it was hit by a car (yes, you read that number correctly).
  • The puppy stage is difficult. And it takes forever. You have to toilet train them, make sure they don't turn into little s**theads, deal with their constant zoomies around the house, and teach them not to chew or ruin your favourite household items.
  • They can smell, and many breeds shed hair (except for the various varieties of oodles that are *meant to be* hypoallergenic and non-shedding, though you truly never know what you're going to get).
  • Dealing with other dog owners can be super annoying. Just like parents, they're all FULL of opinions. I once had a dog owner at the dog park bristle at me when I told her I bought my dog's collar and lead from Kmart. Her dog looked like it had stepped off the runway at Fashion Week.
  • Dogs poo. It's not fun to pick it up (though you always must).
  • A lot of dogs bark, and it can be really irritating, for you and also for your neighbours. Dogs often bark when someone's at the door, which is fair if they're trying to protect, but other times it's just ridiculous. My dog sometimes growls at nothing in the corner of our lounge room late at night and frankly, it freaks me out.
  • They take up so much of your time, and require a decent amount of attention. Your life will soon revolve around this animal. 
  • Dogs die. Sad but true. And I've heard that when your dog dies, it really sucks.

But does our love for our four-legged friends outweigh this cons list? For the vast majority of people, the answer is yes.


So do dogs make us happier?

It's a big yes from Dr Farbotko.

"Just patting the dog makes us feel better. Then when you're talking about pet ownership, it's been found to improve human wellbeing significantly. They're always there, they want to be with you, they want to please you, and they don't really require much. Having that presence of someone who's going to give you that unconditional love is not only such a source of self esteem, but a source of purpose," she tells Mamamia.

"Particularly for people who have been hurt by [other] people, they feel so much safer with an animal. It's just really sweet to see how connected we are to these animals."

Maroney feels the same way, though she acknowledges the shades of grey.

"Overall, I would say yes. One factor to consider is the psychological burden of caring for an ageing or sick dog, and of course coping with grief when a dog passes. However, the research appears to tell us that the benefits of having cared for a dog outweigh this," she says.

"I've always loved this quote by Roger Caras: 'Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.'"

We want to hear from you! Share your thoughts in the comments below. 

Feature Image: Buzzfeed/YouTube/Today/Instagram/Mamamia.

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