Research shows that while we think of receiving support as making us happier, it is actually providing it that has more of a positive impact on our well-being. Pets require our constant attention and care, which absorbs our attention more than domestic routine alone. As a long time dog owner and someone who works within the dog industry, I am focusing my question on dogs.
The first animals to be domesticated were dogs. It is thought that the dog began it's association with humans well over 10,000 years ago, but some studies suggest that it may have been as long as 90,000 years ago. Dogs were used in hunting and for guarding human settlements. Their domestication predated the development of agriculture. It is clear that dogs have played an important part in human evolution, playing major roles in advancing human hunting techniques. Dogs have become remarkably attuned to human emotional states as a result of this long relationship. Dogs are also able to understand human cues which other primates cannot, such as pointing. Humans and Dogs show great empathy towards one another, and one study showed that on meeting new people, the presence of a dog made people comfortable with each other 45% faster than without a dog present.
This leads us to another way in which pets, and particularly dogs, make us happier - they bring us new friends and social contact. Any dog owner will tell you about the many friends they have made through dog ownership, and dogs are of great benefit to those who have difficulty socialising as dogs give them a way to interact and a common interest. The increase in dog ownership may well be evididence of an increasingly isolated urban populations need for intimacy, nuturance, contact with nature and indeed, contact with other people.
Dogs have been shown to have a substantial impact on our physical health too. Studies show that pet ownership reduces blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and increases the amount of exercize taken (dog owners were shown on average to walk 79% further a day than non dog owners).
It has long been believed that pet ownership increases the amount of empathy shown in young children. Disabled people who use assistance dogs report that the companionship adds unequivocally to their feelings of happiness and reduces feelings of isolation that are often reported by disabled people without assistance dogs.
Animals have long been used to promote physical and psychological health. The York retreat's programme in the UK was the first time (1792) that animals had been used in the treatment of mental patients, and the results showed that animals resulted in a decrease in the need for sedation and restraints.
More recently, a dog training programme was set up in a women's prison in the USA. Called 'Rover rehabilitation", abandoned dogs were paired with prisoners who were given the task of training these unwanted dogs to become assistance dogs. Unconditional love resulted for both the dogs and the prisoners, both of whom had often never experienced it. The testimonials from the prisoners were remarkable, describing the experience as giving them a reason to live, and purpose for the first time in their lives. Both the dogs and the prisoners learnt to trust, sometimes for the first time, and the prison officers found that the turn arounds in behaviour amoung the prisoners involved in the project were extraordinary in most cases.
'Patting Dogs' have become popular in recent years at both schools and hospitals, the dogs provide great happiness for the patients and children and are increasing in popularity.
The cons of pet ownership are that they can be an expense, they can limit the amount of travelling or time away from the pet that the owner can have, but these are outweighed considerably by the benefits. I believe that pets do make us considerably happier.
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