Posts tagged with "Zachary Silver of Occidental College"

Does your dog need more friends?

May 22, 2024

“A friend recently told me that she was worried her dog was lonely,” says Kelly Conaboy, a contributor to The Washington Post. “He’s the only dog in the house, and there isn’t a park nearby where he can interact with other pups. Does my dog need friends?” she asked. “Should I set him up on, like … a doggy playdate?”

“I had to admit I didn’t have much experience with this particular anxiety,” says Conaboy. “I live in a two-dog household now, but before living with my husband and his shepherd mix, my dog seemed unbothered by his canine solitude—joyful in it, even. The kind of dog who preferred to sniff along the perimeter of the dog park rather than play within it.

“Still, social interaction is obviously important for human physical and mental health. Could it be the same for dogs?”

She decided to consult with an expert.

“There’s so much variation in what dogs might need,” says Noah Snyder-Mackler, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. “Not all domestic dogs are necessarily better off or happier with other dogs.”

Still, according to the results of a study led by Snyder-Mackler, which was published last year, social companionship (both canine and human) has a major effect on a dog’s health and life span.

The study, which was published in the journal, Evolution, Medicine and Public Health, surveyed the guardians of more than 21,000 dogs about various aspects of their pet’s lives—whether the canine lived with another dog, its level of physical activity, and its health, among other things.

The pet parents also provided information about themselves. The researchers used this data to determine five key factors that influence a dog’s social environment: neighborhood stability, total household income, social time with adults and children, social time with animals and pet-parent age.

Out of these, social companionship from adult humans and other dogs was determined to have the largest positive impact on a dog’s health as they aged. In fact, it was five times as great as any other factor considered. “Dogs are social animals,” Snyder-Mackler says. “It is somewhat debilitating, and not good for their health and well being, to not have close social partners.”

Snyder-Mackler was careful to note that the results of his study didn’t necessarily mean that adopting a second dog would make your dog’s life better or longer. (Although he shared that his wife, a psychology professor, did use the findings as an excuse to get a second dog.)

He also notes that humans can be just as good (and for some dogs, better) social partners for their pets—every animal is unique, and not all dogs enjoy the company of their peers. But what the results show clearly is that strong social companionship has an overall positive effect on a dog’s health and well-being.

So how do you know whether you’re giving your dog the amount of companionship she needs? “When there’s something that’s missing from a dog’s routine, we see this manifest in terms of ‘misbehavior’ or anxiety-related responses,” says Zachary Silver, an assistant professor of psychology at Occidental College, where he’s starting a Dog Cognition Lab. “And it’s not always obvious what the source of those might be.” Though you should consult your vet if you’re concerned about your dog’s behavior, one potential reason for acting up could be a lack of social companionship, which Silver compares to a lack of appropriate exercise.

Like Snyder-Mackler, Silver notes that a dog’s social needs can often be met by their human, particularly if that human is spending a good amount of dedicated one-on-one time with them. But for dogs that get along well with other pups, he says, letting them socialize only with humans is akin to a toddler hanging out only with his parents, versus playing with other kids his age. For some pups, other dogs can offer intraspecies companionship and play behaviors that humans just can’t replicate.

This leaves guardians of companionship-craving solo dogs with a predicament: How do you facilitate canine play sessions? You could visit dog parks, but all that unleashed romping can be intimidating for some pups, plus there’s no real way to ensure your dog’s safety. An alternative, Silver says, could be setting up safe and controlled doggy playdates with a friend or family member the exact kind my friend was curious about. Going for a walk with a friend and their dog could also have a positive impact, or taking a joint hike.

If those options aren’t available, set aside a bit more time to interact with your dog yourself. “There’s all kinds of ways that you can give your dog the types of experiences that they need to be happy,” Silver says. “And for some people, that might exist outside the scope of direct interactions with other animals.”

Other ways of providing companionship and cognitive enrichment include taking long, sniff-filled walks, engaging in training sessions, or just playing throughout the day. The key is making sure it happens regularly enough that your dog’s daily needs are met.

While I think my slightly introverted dog is still most at peace when sniffing solo, or when he has my undivided attention, I do catch glimpses of him opening up more fully around his canine stepbrother. He follows him dutifully on hikes, with a bit more bravery than he would possess, alone, and tends to want to play longer outdoors when his stepbrother is with him. While I’d describe their relationship more as roommates than friends, I can tell my dog is better off for it. I’m glad they have each other.

Research contact: @washingtonpost