“Any furry sweet animal has some attraction and sometimes there’s just the novelty effect of an unusual animal,” Hart says. “But there is something so amazing about dogs in their attentiveness to people, their willingness to solicit friendship. The species is so well suited to humans.”
But dogs aren’t only good icebreakers for the frozen walls of indifference that people build around themselves in public. They can also overcome the harsher reactions that people with disabilities get from strangers.
“Sometimes you go out in public and do your thing at the bank or the store, or whatever, and although everybody is polite, you can kind of see people looking out the side of their eye at you,” Knott says.
A few years after becoming a quadriplegic, Knott participated in a 1988 study done by one of Hart’s grad students, Jane Eddy. Eddy, Hart, and Ronald Boltz followed people in wheelchairs around in shopping centers and on the UC Davis campus, with and without dogs, and watched how people reacted to them. With the dogs present, people got many more smiles and conversations out of strangers, and strangers were less likely to deliberately avert their gaze from or walk out of their way to avoid the disabled person if he had a dog.
“It was just such a big normalizing effect,” Hart says.
Part of the reason that people are drawn to people with dogs is that humans just tend to think of animal owners more positively. In a study in which participants were asked to rate people in drawings on different attributes (unhealthy versus healthy, friendly versus hostile, intelligent versus unintelligent, etc.), they rated the cartoon people more positively when animals were included in the drawings.
This is something that many Tinder users intuitively understand, if the number of dogs in profile pictures is any indication. And it probably works—in the same 2008 study that included the coin-dropping test, a male researcher was able to get a lot more women’s phone numbers when he had a dog with him. He succeeded 9 percent of the time without the dog, and 28 percent of the time with the dog. (The dog, if you were wondering, was “evaluated [in a previous evaluation] as kind, dynamic, and pleasant.” Science!)
It’s an attitude that stems from the “fundamental attribution error,” says Alan Beck, a professor of animal ecology at Purdue University’s School of Veterinary Medicine. The fundamental attribution error is a social-psychological concept describing how people tend to think that what other people do is indicative of their personalities, without taking external factors into account.
“The classic [example] is: If I trip, the first thing I do is look down to see who the hell left something there, whereas if you trip, I call you a klutz,” Beck says. “Well I think when we see people with animals, we just assume that relationship is wonderful and it’s a reflection of that person. We assume they are literally the true good dog owner, as opposed to they just happen to be with a dog or maybe he hates the dog, or whatever … Hitler was a great dog lover.”