Something happens whenever Aaron Morrill takes his large and fluffy mutt, Donut, for her daily walk, and it’s something that always catches him a bit by surprise.
They flock to Donut – “a particularly cute dog,” he says – and he often finds himself surrounded by a gaggle of young women who want to know how old she is (4), if he raised her from a puppy (yes) and if they can pet her (sure).
“They see you with a dog, and all their defences go down,” says Morrill, 59, a businessman in Jersey City, New Jersey. “They assume you must be a decent human being. How could you have a dog and be a bad person?”
The phenomenon isn’t unique to Morrill and Donut. People with dogs are often perceived to be more approachable, happier and more empathetic, research shows. The presence of a dog can also serve as an indication a man is nurturing and capable of caregiving, says Helen Fisher, a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and a chief adviser to Match.com. And that, she says, is a powerful mating signal.
“Having a dog really says something about you,” Fisher says. “It says you can care for a creature, that you can follow a schedule and get home to feed it, that you can walk it and love it and spend time with it.”
It’s a signal that the man may make not only a good friend but a good parent, she says.
“That’s the bottom line message that women get when they see a man with a dog: he’s capable of nurturing, of giving without receiving a lot, of caring for another. He’s made a commitment to this animal,” Fisher says. “And one thing women have needed for years and years is a partner who could share the load, be responsible, care for them if they’re sick and show up on time.” (Just for the record, Morrill is happily married and not in the market for a relationship.)
Gay men and women with pets can communicate the same character traits to potential mates, who will evaluate and appreciate them in a similar manner, says Daniel J Kruger, a research professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who studies human mating strategies. “The kind of benefits you see in terms of increasing the perception that someone is reliable and caring – I think those are generalised across everybody,” he says.
There’s ample research to demonstrate that the messages sent by dog ownership influence others’ judgement and behaviour.
In a world full of messages, not all of them necessarily honest, dog ownership is generally ‘a real honest message’
One study that asked volunteers to rate people based on photographs found that they ranked someone as happier, safer and more relaxed when they appeared with a dog.
In another series of experiments, men had more luck getting a woman’s phone number if they had a dog with them, and both men and women had more luck panhandling when they had a dog with them.
Another study found that when women heard vignettes about men who acted like “cads” who were uninterested in a long-term commitment, they rated the men more highly if they owned a dog.
For single people who own pets – and more and more young singles do – pet ownership may even make or break a relationship, according to a 2015 survey that Fisher and her colleagues conducted among more than 1,200 Match.com pet-owning subscribers. Among the findings:
Women tended to have stronger opinions on many of these matters than men, the Match.com survey also found.
“Women are generally more discerning than men about their mate choices,” says Peter B Gray, an anthropologist who was the lead author of the survey report. “They want to know if this person is a good fit, and this may be one way to assess whether someone is telling the truth and is the right fit in a large, anonymous society.”
Another interesting finding from the Match.com survey was that roughly two-thirds of respondents overall said they would judge their date based on how he or she responded to their own pet. “That people might let a cat or a dog influence the most important close relationship in their life – that’s phenomenal,” says Justin Garcia, an associate professor of gender studies at the Kinsey Institute, who is also a scientific adviser to Match.com and a co-author on the paper.
But as more young adults postpone marriage and children and remain single for longer, he says, they may view their pets as one of the more stable and long-lasting aspects of their life.
Whether dog owners truly are more empathetic and nurturing than those who don’t own pets is harder to ascertain. In a series of studies, two Canadian researchers, Anika Cloutier and Johanna Peetz, showed that pet owners certainly believed their pets had a positive effect on their romantic relationships. They also found a correlation between pet ownership and higher relationship satisfaction.
Cloutier acknowledges that it’s hard to know what comes first, the dog or the personality traits that make someone likely to commit to a relationship, and that the links could reflect reverse causality. “It could be that couples who are more committed and already feel very positively about their relationship are those that decide to invest in the relationship to the pet,” she says.
And beware the cynics who might misuse this information. Frat houses have for years used the trick of adopting baby animals, from puppies to baby chicks to kid goats, to draw visitors. Men or women could similarly “borrow” a friend’s dog for an afternoon walk to lure potential mates.
But ultimately, Fisher comes down on the side of pet owners, who must devote a lot of time to their animals. In a world full of messages, not all of them necessarily honest, she says, dog ownership is generally “a real honest message.”