Why the Family Dog is Good for Your Love Life

After my dog - a curmudgeonly Jack Russell terrier named Houdini - passed away in 2008, I was sure that I wasn't going to get another one anytime soon. Not only had Houdini's death thrown me into an awful state of prolonged grief, but so much had changed since my single days when I had had the luxury of time and freedom, as well as a powerful unmet childhood need to have a dog of my own. But now I had a wife and two young kids (not to mention an elderly cat), and my primary unmet need was for more alone-time with my wife. As much as I loved dogs, I didn't have the room in my home - or, I thought, in my heart - for another one.

But my wife didn't agree. Eventually she decided it was time for us to expand our family, and we found ourselves walking home from our local shelter (the awe-inspiring Animal Haven), with a pit-bull puppy named Jitterbug, who had been abandoned in a box and left for dead in the middle of winter. (That's her in the photo.)

Now, a year later, Jitterbug has brought inestimable joy to our lives: Not only is she a constant source of amusement and tenderness - my older son, Owen (7), who was previously terrified of dogs, now writes "Jitterbug stories" in his free time and willfully solicits her sloppy kisses - but there have also been some unanticipated improvements, like in my relationship with my wife for example. What can I say? Things have gotten better since we've gotten the dog, and that includes our sex life.

How could a humble puppy help steam up things in the bedroom? I attribute this surprising increase in intimacy to a few factors:

  1. Touch. Since getting a dog, the overall level of touch in my household has increased exponentially, and research shows that touch stimulates the production of oxytocin, a hormone that facilitates a sense of trust and connection. Women produce three to five times as much oxytocin as men, so Jitterbug helps get my oxytocin going. It may sound strange, but petting a dog is good foreplay.
  2. Positivity. A recent study in Japan found that a dog can tell whether a person is smiling  - a task that is difficult for monkeys and other intelligent animals. Maybe dogs can recognize smiles so well because they end up producing so many of them. At least that's the case with Jitterbug: From leaping into the tub when my kids are getting bathed, to her Tasmanian devil-like "zoomies," to running in fear from our four-pound elderly Persian cat, Jitterbug does a lot to induce a smile - and that's good for my relationship with my wife. According to eminent relationship therapist and researcher John Gottman, "Those couples that succeed in their marriages enjoy an overriding proportion of positive over negative sentiment." There's no doubt that Jitterbug brings much of the former and helps clears out the latter.
  3. Exercise. On one hand, my walks with Jitterbug definitely take away from my gym time. On the other hand, I wasn't going to the gym anyway, so walking a dog for 45 minutes every day is better than nothing! Study after study shows that exercise helps increase blood flow, which plays a big role in overall sexual health. As Tara Parker Pope reports in her health column this week for the New York Times, "Several studies now show that dogs can be powerful motivators to get people moving. Not only are dog owners more likely to take regular walks, but new research shows that dog walkers are more active over all than people who don't have dogs." Now if only I could get Jitterbug to join me on a run - but she prefers rough-housing at the dog run. And so do I, for that matter.
  4. Novelty. My walks with Jitterbug bring me into a world of new adventures - mainly meeting new people and their dogs. Studies show that humans are novelty-seeking creatures, and that newness drives the transmission of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in sexual arousal. When it comes to novelty a little goes a long way, and thanks to Jitterbug, there's more dopamine flitting around my brain. And that makes me feel more interested in sex.

The idea of pet therapy and service dogs is nothing new, but the impact of pets on relationship satisfaction has yet to be adequately explored. Dr. Debby Herbenick of the Kinsey Institute says that the research team at The Center for Sexual Health Promotion is conducting a study about the sexual lives of women and men who live with dogs and cats. "Although there is a fair amount of research that has examined people's sexual experiences after they have children," says Herbenick, who is also a dog lover, "little is known about women's and men's sexual lives after they adopt a pet."

Of course, the one thing that doesn't help my sex life is Jitterbug's desire to jump up on the bed and settle in right in between my wife and me. But in truth, even that brings us closer together - literally. If she didn't jump up in the bed, Lisa and I might be more liable to stick to our sides of the bed, with magazines and laptops, and not let our fingers touch, share a smile, laugh, and kiss. Jitterbug helps us find our way to the middle of the bed and, like a little Cupid, she seems content to spend the rest of the night in her doggie bed.

I sometimes secretly wonder if I might be the sort of person who loves dogs more than I love people, but when I stop to think about it, it's not that I love dogs more. It's that overall I love more when there's a dog around.

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