By Dr. Becker
Seventy-two percent of Americans feel lonely from time to time. For one-third of them, this loneliness occurs at least once a week.1
Adding a pet to your life can ease these lonely feelings considerably, not only because they provide unwavering companionship and loyalty, but also because they act as a distraction and a focal point, giving you a sense of structure and purpose to your day.
In the case of dogs, however, they also offer the benefit of helping their owners make friends. From getting you out and about in your community during daily walks to facilitating conversations with strangers, dogs are masters at initiating social interactions.
Dogs Break the Barrier of ‘Civil Inattention’
Sociologist Erving Goffman, Ph.D., first coined the term “civil inattention” to describe the way strangers typically respond to one another in public.
While perhaps giving a quick glance to acknowledge that another person is present, most people will then look away, giving the signal that no further interaction is desired or necessary (and acknowledging that the other person likely feels the same way).
But “dogs do not give a hoot about our elaborate, chilly social dances,” as The Atlantic put it, which means they’ll run right up to strangers and greet them with a lick on the hand or a hearty bark “hello,” if they’re so inclined.2
In short, dogs break through this barrier of civil inattention, disarming would-be strangers with their contagious desire to interact. Just the fact that someone has a dog immediately makes them feel more approachable and familiar to other dog lovers, as you immediately have something in common, something to discuss.
Dogs Help Establish Trust and Relationships Among Strangers
In the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, researchers wrote, “dogs expose their human companions in public places to encounters with strangers, facilitate interaction among the previously unacquainted, and help establish trust among the newly acquainted.”3
Indeed, there’s something about dogs that makes their owners seem like better people to the world around them. Earlier this year, a telephone survey asked residents of four cities (one in Australia and three in the U.S.) about pet ownership and friendships in their neighborhood.
Pet owners were significantly more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners.4
Not only that, but people who owned dogs were significantly more likely to regard people whom they met through their pet as a friend than were owners of other types of pets. Dog owners were also three times more likely to receive at least one type of social support from people met through their pet.
In another revealing study, researchers carried out a series of tests to determine if dogs can facilitate closer relationships.5
In one experiment, a man or a woman solicited people for money in the street, either while accompanied by a dog or not. Another experiment involved a person dropping coins on the ground to see if people would help him pick them up. Again, this was done both with a dog and without.
The last experiment involved a man, with and without a dog, trying to solicit phone numbers from women on the street.
In each instance, “the presence of the dog was associated with a higher rate of helping behavior, with passersby more likely to give money to or help pick up the coins of someone with a dog. Even the women asked for their phone numbers were more likely to comply if a dog was part of the equation.
Dogs Have a ‘Normalizing’ Effect for People With Disabilities
People with disabilities may struggle with feelings of isolation, in part, because of the way strangers treat them. “Able-bodied people often exhibit behaviors that show them to be socially uncomfortable upon encountering a physically disabled stranger,” scientists wrote in the Journal of Psychology.6
For instance, upon seeing someone in a wheelchair, a person may initiate less eye contact, divert their gaze away from the person, increase their personal distance and have briefer social interactions. During the study, researchers found that these behaviors decreased significantly if the disabled person was accompanied by a dog.
When a dog was present, smiles and conversations from strangers increased significantly, in particular. One man, who became quadriplegic following a car accident, noted that the dog had a “big normalizing effect.”7
Not a Dog Person? Other Animals May Have a Similar Effect
It should be noted that animals other than dogs may also act as ice-breakers between strangers. Research has shown people are more likely to start up a conversation with a stranger in a park if they’re sitting with a turtle or rabbit, for instance, than if they were blowing bubbles.8
So if you take your cat or pot-bellied pig out for a walk, you’ll likely experience many social interactions that you wouldn’t have had otherwise.
That being said, dogs, with their close bond with humans, do have a tendency to draw people in. Lynette Hart, Ph.D., a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis, told The Atlantic:9
“Any furry sweet animal has some attraction and sometimes there’s just the novelty effect of an unusual animal … But there is something so amazing about dogs in their attentiveness to people, their willingness to solicit friendship. The species is so well suited to humans.”
Aside from going on walks, you and your dog can facilitate new friendships by attending a dog-friendly race or dog park in your area. You may also find a meet-up group for dog owners (or owners of certain types of dogs) nearby.
Whether you’re elderly, new in town or just looking to expand your social circle, simply walking outdoors with your dog will open the possibility to forming new relationships. And even if you don’t make new human friends on every walk, you’ll still have the pleasure of spending time with your best canine friend.