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Get a Dog. It’s Good for You.

When every social media account can feel like a reminder of what you don't have, the best thing for you is a living, breathing (yes, even occasionally drooling) reminder of what you do have. At least writer and former culture editor of Vogue Alessandra Codinha thinks so.

I am a writer who frequently writes about travel, or finds other good enough reasons to hit the road. As a result, my 9 year old golden retriever, Hugo, has been chauffeured (by me) across the country and back going on four separate times, now, and by the end of this summer, five. He has swum in all but one of the Great Lakes and both Atlantic and Pacific oceans. He has stayed at exclusive five star hotels and dusty roadside motels and the many, many kinds of places that fall between those designations. He has been glamping twice. He is cargo and companion and he is consistently great company, despite a proclivity for hunting out pizza crusts and other half-consumed fast foods on whatever city street he happens to be walking. Other than that, and the fact that he will begin to drool as soon as he becomes aware of a comestible item, he is perfect. (He is not perfectly trained — though he does know some tricks — as I have always felt that being too well trained suppresses some sort of important animal joy or innate dogness.) I know that friendly, agreeable behavior and a doting disposition are considered par for the course with golden retrievers, but as with most other vaguely-psychotic-in-their-adoration dog owners (all of them), I consider his wonderful manner of being to be both utterly unique to him and an obvious credit to my influence and pet parenting skills. He is, in fact, at present the only other living creature whom I consider myself to be entirely responsible for. This is a fact of which I am very proud. You would be too, if you met him.

Alessandra Codinha

So when I was asked to write about how pet parenting positively affects one’s psychology for this fine publication, I snapped at the chance. So easy! I thought. It’s obvious! It’s not. It turns out that people without dogs tend to think that “dog people” exaggerate the benefits, sort of the way underslept new parents’ hormones have them swooning over their caterwauling newborns, like, I’ve made this decision, and it feels a little like it’s ruining my life, but if I become aware of that, I’ll go lie in traffic, so please agree with me that my baby is a beautiful future supreme court justice. Look, I know that having a dog does not make you a good person. Vladimir Putin is said to love dogs. Hitler had dogs. But I’m willing to bet that loving a dog makes you a better person. (Maybe we can agree that homicidal maniac dictators aren’t the best example of any particular aspect of humanity.) For one thing, few creatures alive demonstrate true, unconditional love as well as a dog. “It’s a little corny, but I do connect dogs with God. Like those bumper stickers that say ‘GOD is DOG backwards,’ or whatever,” one friend, a therapist and self-described “dog person” told me. “If you think about it, dogs really embody the kind of unconditional love and understanding we associate with a higher power. You can neglect them, abuse or forget or mistreat them, but they will always forgive you. They’ll always receive you, tail wagging. That’s love.” For the elderly, pet ownership has shown enormous psychological benefits in terms of combating feelings of isolation. During the pandemic, dog walking became the sole in-person social outlet available to many, as well as often the only real reason to put on pants and go outside: this was reason enough to spark a surge in adoptions across the globe. (Remember the “pandemic puppy” boom?) And in an era where people have increasingly turned towards technology and away from the natural world, dogs are also a fabulous demonstration of how to live entirely in the here and present now.

Alessandra Codinha

This was something I long took for granted. Hugo is the definition of a social animal; he has lived for most of his life as a real New York flâneur. His old name tag read “Prince of Tribeca”, because it was the truest thing anyone ever said about him. Walking him along the west side highway was how I imagined it would be to casually stroll with the Beatles; heads would turn, girls would scream, tourists would ask for photos, cars would nearly drive off the road. (Well, that’s what it felt like.) He’d sit with me on a stoop for hours on the weekends and simply receive, as passersby would stop to fondle his ears and tell him how handsome he was. When we moved across the country to Los Angeles in early 2021, it was a little difficult for him. It’s hard to give up that kind of attention for a town where nobody walks, and there are next to no pizza crusts or chicken bones or foil wrapped burritos strewn about, even if the trade is 365 days of sunshine. But six months or so into our move and my continuing to work from home, he and I went from spending only my pre-and post-office hours to nearly all day every day together, and I began to wonder less about my effects on him (soporific, apparently, as he sleeps nearly all day), and more about his effect on me.

Was all of this time together, much more of which now was spent gazing into his deep and limpid eyes instead of a screen, part of why I felt markedly happier here in L.A.? Were our twice daily marches around the canyon where we live responsible for my sunnier disposition, as a daily cocktail of exercise, fresh air, and vitamin D have been shown to be? Or did the increased Hugo exposure have something to do with it?

Science says: it certainly doesn’t hurt! In 2019, a study published by the American Heart Association compiling over 70 years of research found that dog ownership is associated with a 24 percent reduction in all-cause mortality. And prior studies cite both lower blood pressure and significantly lesser risk for cardiovascular disease (including a 15% lower risk of dying via heart attack) among pet owners. Scientists have studied the brain and found that time spent petting a dog releases oxytocin — the same “love” hormone released during acts of pleasure and physical intimacy — in both owner and animal.

The benefits of owning, and loving, a dog have been shown to extend well beyond blood pressure, too. In California, a nonprofit called Project Street Vet provides free veterinary services to the homeless or those at risk of becoming homeless, and has gone viral countless times documenting tear-jerking stories of love and devotion between pet and person. “I’ve seen people give up their last meal for their pet,” Project Street Vet’s founder, Dr. Kwane Stewart told CNN in a video celebrating him as a 2023 Hero of the Year. “I’ve seen people with three dollars to their name try to give me their last three dollars for treating their dog.” The human-animal bond can’t be overstated, he says: the responsibility that comes with caring for a pet can spark a desire to better your circumstances when you’d all but given up, whether that means avoiding substance abuse, or seeking a path to becoming housed. These animals are a companion, but for many they’re also a lifeline: a living being who listens to and loves you and sees you, when most people you interact with may often pretend not to. A dog can be more than “man’s best friend”: they can be a beacon of hope, a wake up call, and a source of true goodness in a world where that can feel in shockingly short supply. “A pet doesn’t care about nice furniture and a big home and an acre of land,” Dr. Stewart says. “They just want to spend all of their time with you.” You certainly don’t have to be in recovery or on the fringes of society to reap the benefits. Many of us could use a reality check. As it turns out, when every social media account can feel like a reminder of what you don’t have, the best thing for you and your brain is a living, breathing (yes, even occasionally drooling) reminder of what you do. But Hugo could have told you that.

Alessandra Codinha