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I won’t be alone at Christmas, I have a dog

Christmas can be tough for many people. Loneliness and depression spike at this time of year and family pressures abound. It can be easy to feel like you are missing out on the the “holiday spirit”.

But dogs help to connect people socially, reduce feelings of isolation, and even improve our sense of self-worth. For the most vulnerable members of our society, including the elderly and the homeless, dogs are vital. As a society, we need to cherish our animal companions.

Read more: The science behind why some people love animals and others couldn't care less

Dogs in single-person households

Australia is a nation of dog lovers, with nearly 40% of households owning a dog. In 88% of households they are considered to be a part of the family. No doubt many will have their own Christmas stocking at this time of year, to be filled with doggy treats and toys.

Companionship is one of the main reasons that people living alone get dogs, particularly in divorced, separated and widowed households. Ninety per cent of widowed households report getting a dog for company.

Read more: Loneliness is not just for Christmas – but by the flurry of charity messages you'd think otherwise

Social and emotional benefits of dog ownership

And it seems to pay off. Numerous studies suggest that people with dogs are less lonely and have a stronger sense of connection to others, compared with people who do not have dogs. There are three likely reasons for this.

First, dogs are very charismatic animals that provide company and social support to their owners. Dog owners often observe that their dog is empathetic and offers comfort when it is needed.

Second, dogs also need people. One recent study involving older adults suggests that the need to care for pets may give their owners “a sense of worth [through] responsibility for another living being”. In other words, people find a sense of purpose and satisfaction in caring for their pet.

Third, dogs are important social facilitators. They get people out of the house and into the local neighbourhood where the chance of meeting and interacting with other people is higher. People walking with dogs have up to three times as many social interactions when accompanied by a dog than when they are not.

Read more: Our pets strengthen neighbourhood ties

In one Australian study, dog owners were also more likely to report that their suburb was friendly and that they rarely or never had difficulty getting to know other people in their suburb.

Physical benefits of dog ownership

Dogs also bring health benefits. These are easier to measure than social and emotional benefits. They mainly relate to the fact that dogs encourage people to get out and walk.

Proven physical benefits include reduced risk of a heart attack, faster recovery after a heart attack (as measured by days in hospital), fewer visits to the doctor each year, and in children a reduced risk of developing asthma.

One recent study suggests that single-person households might get particular health benefits. A 12-year study of 3.4 million Swedes aged between 40 and 80 found that dog owners who lived alone had a significantly reduced risk of death due to cardiovascular disease or other causes.

Homeless Australians and pet ownership

Dogs are especially important to people who are homeless.

Eli (name changed to protect privacy), a client of Pets in the Park (a charity that offers free veterinary care to pets owned by the homeless in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra), was homeless for seven years before finding public housing. A short time later Eli adopted a Jack Russell-Kelpie cross pup called “Coco”. Eli explains:

Coco is my lifesaver, best friend, partner in crime, social facilitator, fun buddy, my “go to”, my comfort, protector, the one I most trust.

Eli dropped out of school during year 10 to run away from an abusive and traumatic family life. With the support of Coco (who is now a registered Assistance Dog), and a tremendous amount of willpower and resilience, Eli has since managed to complete two TAFE certificates and a diploma, and is now halfway through a bachelor’s degree in social work. She aims eventually to work in social policy and community development, to prevent homelessness and help others who have experienced abuse, trauma and social displacement.

“I had no reason to breathe before Coco came into my life. So anything I have achieved thereafter is off the back of her support and presence,” Eli says.

Eli’s story is an poignant example of the power of pet ownership that cannot be easily captured by simple statistics. Her experiences are supported by several recent studies. In one report, people who were homeless credited their dog with changing, and saving, their life.

Eli says her dog Coco was a ‘lifesaver’ during a tough time. Linda Warlond, Clique Photography

In another, homeless adolescents described how dogs helped to combat feelings of loneliness. Just as for people who are homed, dogs “were companions that could provide safety, unconditional love, and a reason to keep going because they needed care in return”.

Read more: Pets and our health: why we should take them more seriously

Pets in the Park co-founder Leah Skelsey notes that homeless clients are especially at risk of experiencing loneliness around Christmas time, when many others in the community are celebrating with family and friends. It is at this time of year that dogs may particularly benefit their often isolated and vulnerable owners. Eli says:

The simplest way Coco helps over Christmas is having someone to cuddle and company. When we are sad we need comfort, and Coco knows when I need it. She stays closer to my side, is more attentive, and she watches me like a hawk. This is how Coc gets me through the silly season and forces me to keep going.

If you are reading this between Christmas parties where the champagne is flowing freely, the music is loud and conversation with friends and family is jubilant, spare a thought for those in our community who are spending Christmas alone. In particular, those people living alone without the unconditional love and warmth of a dog to help keep them company.

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