Senior woman happily hugging black and white spaniel

Why Do Dogs Make Us So Much Happier?

Owning a pet can bring us many benefits such as companionship, getting out for walks, and having a little critter to play with. These are all advantages of owning a pet dog, but what is it specifically about our furry friends that actually increase our happiness?

As it turns out, owning a dog or puppy usually elicits a brain chemical called oxytocin, also known as the “love or cuddle hormone.” It is the same hormone that helps new mothers bond with their newborn children. There is just something about those big round eyes of our furry friends that elicits this hormone in most dog owners. We immediately feel more relaxed, loving, and compassionate toward our canine charges and this leads to greater happiness.

Dogs Increase Our “Love Hormone”

Small brown dog recovered after tooth extraction

Gia’s soulful eyes elicit feelings of love and happiness.

Photo by Judy Swayne.

When we stare into those big sweet eyes of our favorite pooch, it raises our levels of a hormone called oxytocin. And, interestingly, when dogs stare back into our eyes, it also raises their levels of oxytocin as well. This helps to explain the strong bond that dogs and humans develop. It also explains why we feel more secure, relaxed, and happy.

Scientific studies have actually been done to measure the oxytocin levels of dogs and their owners after they gaze into one another’s eyes. See this post at science.org to learn more about these Japanese scientific studies. The experiments utilized urine samples to measure the levels of oxytocin of 30 dogs and their owners. And in all cases, the levels of this hormone increased in both dogs and owners. As a controlled variable, researchers also tested wolves whose levels of hormones did not rise. And, the wolves were more reluctant to lock eyes and often looked away.

Researchers found that hormone levels rose 300% in owners after just a few minutes of looking into their dog’s eyes. Likewise, when their dogs returned their gaze, their oxytocin levels rose 150%. This interesting phenomenon seems to be how dogs and their owners communicate in a non-verbal way. It is very similar to the way human mothers and new babies connect creating feelings of security, warmth, and love.

In addition to locking eyes, food, petting, and playing can also increase oxytocin levels in both dogs and their owners as well. The simple act of cuddling with and caring for our pooches can elicit warm feelings within us.

Other Ways Dogs Can Make Us Happier

The human-animal bond bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the heart and emotions and nurtures us in ways that nothing else can.

Karen Winegar, author and animal expert

Owning a dog requires more physical activity including going for walks and getting outside. This leads to an increase in our endorphin levels which is another feel-good hormone. Fresh air and brisk walks are good for us both physically and emotionally instilling an increased sense of well-being and elevated mood.

Most dog owners also report an increased level of socialization as they connect with other people and dog owners. Almost every time I take my two dogs to the local park or dog park, someone wants to chat and ask about my dogs. Often, small children approach and want to know if they can pet my dogs. Some of the most interesting conversations happen while I am sitting on a bench as my pups run around at the dog park.

Not only do dogs keep us more physically active and socially engaged, but they can also help lower our stress levels by lowering our cortisol levels. According to this article in Psychology Today, How dogs make you happy, owning a dog can help elevate your mood and decrease depression. Author Susanna Newsonen goes on to say, “There are many reasons why this might be the case but author and animal expert Karen Winegar sums it up beautifully: ‘ The human-animal bond bypasses the intellect and goes straight to the heart and emotions and nurtures us in ways that nothing else can.‘ “

Other Benefits Of Dog Ownership that Increase our Happiness

Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.

Anatole France

In addition to evoking positive hormones, owning a dog can contribute to happiness in a variety of ways:

  • Providing Companionship
  • Reducing loneliness
  • Increasing our circle of friends
  • Connecting us more with nature
  • Keeping us active
  • Improving our health
  • Giving us a sense of purpose

According to a study by BarkBox, 93% of dog parents said that their dogs made them better people. And, 71% stated that their dogs made them happier. Having someone else to focus on and care for can give us a much greater sense of purpose and joy in life. Dogs help reduce our sense of loneliness. They are loyal companions who do not judge us and will love us unconditionally.

Dogs are often recommended for seniors and military vets who need to develop or regain a sense of purpose and fulfillment in life as well as companionship. And because dogs can help elicit those good hormones, they can help elderly people who live alone stave off depression and feelings of isolation. Having a dog can also help improve mental cognition due to the stimulation and interaction of having a pet.

Not only will a dog make you happier, but you will probably become physically healthier as well. As a dog owner, you will be more physically active, and mentally stimulated, and will have higher levels of good hormones and lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol.

Studies have been done with pet owners that indicated they may have lower levels of heart attacks as a result of having a pet. One scientific study by the American Psychological Association even indicated that owning a dog can improve one’s sense of self-esteem.

Final Thoughts

Tan and black dogs sleeping together on the couch.

Charlotte and Georgia have stolen my heart!

I have always loved dogs and have owned several during my lifetime. But I did not realize how much they truly have meant to me until I went through a period of time toward the end of my busy career without owning a dog. Something always seemed to be missing. Shortly after my retirement from full-time work, I adopted two bonded sisters and my whole life suddenly blossomed again. All of my friends said I seemed so much happier.

Dogs seem to fill a place in our hearts, unlike most other domesticated animals. They have this amazing ability to connect with us and steal our hearts! Yes, other pets can do this as well, however, dogs seem to have an unusual ability to check all of the happiness boxes and complete those empty spaces within our lives.