Actually the dog is somewhat irrelevant – it’s what comes with it which matters. One of the side-effects of dog ownership is that you get to spend an hour or so a day out walking, which means you have an hour or so with your own thoughts and no distractions.
I’m sure everyone has experienced the situation where you go to sleep thinking about a problem, and then wake up in the morning with the answer. It’s pretty common for your brain to replay the events of the day whilst you sleep and it’s surprising how just making time to think about something can can help you to clarify and understand problems you’re working on. Doing this overnight is good as far as it goes, but can end up somewhat surreal as you effectively relinquish control of your train of thought.
The same principle applies during the day though. If your brain isn’t immediately occupied with a specific task it will tend to go back over other problems you’re working on at the moment. The problem is that in a modern office or lab setting we hardly ever have time when we’re not being presented with something to do. Even when we’re not at work it feels really unnatural to not be doing anything. There’s always something to read, watch or do so your brain never gets chance to drift back to the topics which could usefully employ it. That’s where the dog comes in.
I actually first noticed this effect when I started cycling to work. My commute by bike takes me about an hour (which is why I don’t do it all that often!), but I found that when I cycled to work I would be hugely productive for the first couple of hours of the day and find really creative solutions for things I was working on. I first put this down to having more energy from my early morning exercise, but I then found that if I put on a podcast whilst I cycled I was no more productive than if I’d driven – so it wasn’t the cycling, it was having an hour where my brain had nothing to do other than chew over the problems I was working on.
Dogs are even better in this respect in that you don’t really get a choice about whether you’re going to take them out. You’re forced to spend some time every day with no external distractions from which you can gain the attendant benefits.
Somewhat perversely I find that conferences work this way too, only they provide a double benefit. Anyone who’s ever been to a conference will know that talks fall into two categories – those which capture your attention and provide new and interesting ways of interpreting your science, and those in which you switch off and stop listening in the first five minutes. Actually I’d argue that both of these types of talk are beneficial. The first inspires you and gives you new information to process, and the second gives you some uniterrupted time to think about what you learned in the first. Many of the most intersting projects I’ve worked on have begun during poor talks in a conference, where I’ve stopped listening to the current talk and have sketched out the structure for a software package, or a theory which I could test. Granted it doesn’t always work this way. I once spent an hour in a particularly dull keynote writing a program which would rate all of the keynotes in a conference by the change in ping times on the wireless network (it’s conclusions matched surprisingly well with my own personal judegment), but if not productive at least that was creative.
My tip for improved science then is not necessarily to get a dog – although I can heartily recommend doing so – it’s to force yourself to make some time each day where you don’t have anything to think about. Your brain will thank you for it.