Our dogs strengthen neighborhood ties

You will hear stories from pet owners about the companionship and joy of owning a pet. There is increasing evidence that pets have a positive impact on the local community, even if their owners do not own them. A cross-national research project involving Perth in Australia and three US cities supports the idea that pets can help build social capital.

It is important to remember that the loss of a sense of community has been widely lamented. Hugh Mackay observed that not knowing your neighbors is a sad cliché of urban life today.

When I was doing a PhD in neighbourhoods and community 15 years ago, I accidentally stumbled upon pet-related research. I wanted to know what elements in a neighborhood might encourage people to connect. So, I asked some questions about pets.

In my academic article that has been cited the most, we found pet owners to be more likely than others to have higher levels of social capital. This concept captures the trust between people, including those we do not know personally. It also includes networks of social support and neighborly exchanges of favors.

In ten years, a larger study will be conducted to examine the relationship between social capital and pets. Randomly, pet owners and non-owners in four cities were surveyed (Perth, San Diego, Portland, and Nashville, four cities with similar sizes, densities, and climates).

We found that in all four cities, owning pets was associated with higher levels of social capital than not having a pet. After adjusting for demographic factors, which might affect people’s social connections in their neighborhood, this result remained the same.

What are the benefits of pets in building social bonds?

Many people assume that social benefits from pets are limited to the interactions that happen when people walk their dogs. Many dog owners have anecdotes that support this. This large sample study found that social capital levels were higher for pet owners than for other groups.

We found that dog owners, and in particular those who walk their dogs, had higher social capital. Dog owners were five times more likely than other residents to have gotten to know them. It makes sense that dogs are most likely to take us out of the house.

Our survey results and qualitative responses suggest that pets of all kinds can be a great social lubricant. Pets can be a great equalizer in society. They are loved and owned by people of all ages, races, and social strata. People are drawn to pets because they share something with them.

What does it mean for the way we live?

It is no longer a mere social nicety. Internationally, hundreds of studies show that social capital predicts a range of important social indicators, including mental health and education.

It makes sense, given that pets are a part of the lives of Australians and their homes. This is a great way to improve the social fabric in local communities.

Not everyone is able to or wants a pet. Two-thirds do, and so we need to make our cities “pet friendly.”

In general, Australian suburbs have a lot of walking parks. This study also revealed that the presence of dog walkers in public places contributes to perceptions about community safety.

We should rethink the ‘no pet’ rule in light of its social benefits. Ed Brey/WikimediaCC BY-SA

In Australia, however, pets are traditionally only allowed in homes with a backyard. Many apartment complexes and retirement communities still have a “no pet” policy.

Pets are more accepted in other countries where higher-density living and renting is the norm.

We may need to re-calibrate our notions about who can own pets and where they can reside, given that the aging population and housing affordability are important social trends in many nations (including Australia). It is not that all places should allow pets, but it is questionable to assume “no pets are allowed.”

My father-in-law in his 80s, couldn’t move to a retirement community because his docile rescue dog exceeded the “10kg” pet rule. He could not bear to give up Moby, his faithful dog, whom he had met daily in the nearby park.

Always by your side in times of change

My current research is largely focused on homelessness. I was recently talking to a homeless man in Melbourne who had his dog with him. He told me that his dog keeps him awake and safe at night. It also gets them walking every day.

He needed to find a housing option for public housing that allowed pets.

Homeless people also need options for crisis accommodation that allow pets. It is wonderful to see that places like Tom Fisher House in Perth are opening their doors to rough-sleepers with pets who need a safe place for them to sleep.

In an age of global uncertainty and frenetic communication, it is appealing to have pets enriching the social fabric of a community. Cultural analyst Sheryl Turkle said that the way people interact and form relationships has changed dramatically. We can find ourselves ” linked, but alone“.

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