Man's best friends makes you more friends. Credit: © Photodisc

Takinga dog for 'walkies' has a number of benefits. It keeps your canine companion fit and happy and you get fresh air and exercise. But that's not all. Your dog can improve your social life, says research published in the British Journal of Psychology(15 February 2000).

This is not the first evidence that animals can be good for your health. 'Pet assisted therapy', where animals such as cats, dogs, fish and birds are brought into hospitals, residential homes and even some prisons, to reduce stress and boost morale, is becoming increasingly popular. Research has also shown that people with pets are less likely to suffer cardiovascular disease. Pet owners seem to be both healthier and happier than those of us without a stick insect or a sheepdog to call our own -- but why?

One reason is that pets can help people to socialize, as June McNicholas and Glyn M. Collis of the University of Warwick, UK, have found. And this, in turn, may improve people's psychological wellbeing.

The duo carried out a range of experiments where a person recorded the social encounters they had when they walked out with and without a dog. Can man's best friends help us make friends, they asked?

Apparently, yes. An experimenter accompanied by a dog had over three times the number of social interactions -- instigated by other people -- than had the same person when out on their own.

McNicholas and Collis also report that the extent to which a dog acted as a 'social catalyst' varied depending on the type of relationship the experimenter had with the people they encountered. A dog seemed to have the greatest impact with strangers. Over 95% of contact with strangers occurred when an experimenter had a canine companion. Interactions with acquaintances were more than twice as likely when someone was with a dog. Friends are only slightly more likely to approach a dog-walker.

Neither the dog nor handler initiated these experimental encounters but the researchers speculate that both the walker and dog were seen as being very approachable. The duo also investigated whether the appearance of the dog and experimenter had any affect on these interactions.

A smart looking experimenter had 20% more 'encounters' than had a scruffy one. Interestingly, dogs' looks have much less effect: smart or scruffy, the presence of a pooch was all that counted. Indeed, walkers had their faithful furry friends to thank for 95% of all their encounters during the experiments.

A canine pal, it seems, breaks down some of the social barriers that exist, at least in Britain, especially in striking up casual conversations with strangers. This shows, the researchers conclude, that a dog can have a strong, positive influence on its owner's social life. What better reason to put your coat on and take Rover for a walk.