Dogs: A (Neurotic) Man’s Best Friend

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Dogs may really be man‘s best friend — at least if that can be measured by how often dogs approach their male owners, compared with their female owners. The closest relationships appear to be between neurotic men and their equally anxious male dogs, a new study finds.

Discovery News reports:

“The sensitivity of dogs to owner sex may be rooted in their wolf ancestry, where sexes engage in distinctly different social roles,” lead author Manuela Wedl told Discovery News.

Wedl, a University of Vienna researcher, project leader Kurt Kotrschal, and their colleagues observed and analyzed how dogs and their owners interacted with each other during an experiment as part of a pilot study.

The new study was published by — yep — the same team that found that women bond more closely with cats. Researchers tested 10 men and 12 women, along with their male dogs. (Female dogs were not studied.) The humans were given a distraction task — in this case, associating words with pictures of dogs that were placed in the room — while researchers allowed their dogs to enter the room. They found that the dogs sought contact with their male owners more often than with their female owners. (More on The Science of Women and Cats)

But perhaps more significant than the gender of the owner, researchers said, was his or her level of neuroticism: while the dogs tended to approach male owners more often, they didn’t necessarily remain close to them longer. Rather, dogs stayed close to anxious owners — men or women — especially dogs that were anxious themselves. (More on Dog Walkers Get More Exercise)

The nature of the “bonding” in the current study wasn’t as clear as it was with the cat study, however. University of Rostock dog behavior researcher Andrea Beets told Discovery News:

“Frequent approaching, but not maintaining contact, may on the one hand indicate a higher wish for contact, but on the other hand could also indicate more insecurity in the relationship,” Beetz explained. “The dog might seek reassurance.”

Although studying human-pet interaction may seem silly, research has found significant effects of pet ownership on human health. Dog-walking is a good source of daily exercise, for instance, and dog owners are known to be more active generally. What’s more, pet ownership — either dog or cat — has been found to reduce high blood pressure; in one study of stockbrokers, getting a pet worked better than medication. Pets also lower levels of stress hormones, high levels of which can have numerous detrimental effects on health.

But watch out for the cat of death.