In a recent television commercial for a fast food restaurant, a young man
shouted out an enthusiastic message: "Change is Good!" At the same time, the
message on another channel (this time about hotels and delivered by a
middle-aged couple) was "The Best Surprise Is No Surprise." Although these
advertisements are meant to be amusing, they also reflect serious realities of
life. Clearly there are times in our lives when we agree that something
different would indeed be welcome, and other times when we try desperately to
keep everything stable and predictable.
Because we often do not have a great deal of control over many of the events in
our lives that involve change and transition, the methods we choose to cope with
such events can greatly influence the effect they have on us. Over the past few
decades, psychologists and other social scientists have focused a great deal of
attention on identifying and quantifying the role of social environment in a
person's ability to deal successfully with stressful life events. For those of
us who are interested in human-animal relationships, a question immediately
comes to mind: "To what degree can a pet help a person cope with changes and
transitions?" Although researchers have not focused specifically on this
question, several recent studies provide evidence to increase our understanding
of how the presence of pets in our lives may moderate our responses to stressful
While many changes in life are negative and inherently threatening (for example:
death of a friend or spouse, personal injury or illness, unemployment, etc.),
others would be considered by most as positive and potentially challenging
rather than threatening (for example: marriage, change of careers, birth of a
child, move to a new city, etc.). Research that looks at physiological responses
to stress has begun to document the importance of looking at how people perceive
various situations, that is, if they believe that they are threatened or
challenged (and respond accordingly in their heart rate and blood pressure). An
experimental study involving women who reported having to deal with high levels
of stress in their jobs (all were in a "helping profession" such as nursing,
teaching, medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry, etc.) revealed an
interesting pattern of responses related to the presence of women's dogs versus
that of their self-selected best friends. In this study, I asked women to
perform a difficult mental arithmetic task in one of three conditions: alone
(with just the experimenter), with their best friend, or with their dog.
Basically, women responded as challenged when their dogs were present, and
threatened when their best friends were present. In addition, the women with the
dogs performed the difficult arithmetic task dramatically better than those
alone or with their friends.
In real life, however, we rarely have to perform mental arithmetic out loud for
an audience, so how can such an experiment tell us anything about dealing with a
life change or crisis situation? In extensive interviews with the women in this
study, I learned a great deal about the dog-related techniques they used to turn
potentially threatening situations into challenging ones. This is information
that is not "scientific," and therefore does not appear in the formally
published version of this experiment. Nevertheless, I believe those interviews
were very important, and they have affected my design of other studies.
For example, when I asked women to describe how they thought their dogs
influenced their lives, all study participants mentioned ways in which they
believed their dogs had helped them in events that involved change or
transition. Perhaps most interesting, and certainly most poignant, were the
responses of the five women who had become widows within a year prior to the
experiment. Although their circumstances were somewhat different from each
other, the descriptions they gave of the role of their dog in dealing with a
husband's death were nearly identical. Each widow said that while she
appreciated the consolation efforts of family and friends, she really wanted to
be alone with her dog, especially immediately following her husband's death.
Part of the reason was that the dog had been shared by the husband, but more
important was the feeling that, with the dog, no social pretenses were
necessary, and no one was judging her ability to "bear up." These women all said
that the dog provided the desirable qualities of a best friend (e.g., listening,
physical contact, empathy) without any undesirable evaluative ones. They also
all reported that to help get through times during the funeral proceedings when
it was socially inappropriate to have the dog present, they thought about the
dog and carried something related to the dog in a pocket (e.g., a dog toy, a
collar, etc.). That these widows behaved in such similar ways impressed me
immensely and caused me to think about social support in a new way. Perhaps
certain situations call for specific types of social support, and pets provide a
unique type that cannot be duplicated by a person. Several other women in this
experiment provided numerous examples of how their dogs provided a unique kind
of support in times of divorce, in situations of conflict with coworkers, and in
events involving illness. A recurring theme was the use of imagery of the dog in
times of high stress, and there were consistent reports that when the dog was
imagined, obstacles appeared less daunting and difficult tasks more possible. It
is important to note that all of the women in this study were self-described dog
lovers, and that similar results certainly would not be expected for people who
are not attached to their pets.
Such reports support the view that pets can be helpful in changing a threatening
situation into a challenging one. It seems then, that the nature of social
support, and the use of mental imagery as well as the presence of a pet to
transform uncomfortable, threatening life transitions into manageable challenges
are important topics for future human-animal interaction studies.
Although the study described above provides compelling evidence for dogs as
moderators to stress, it cannot explain the mechanism by which the process may
work. Inspired by a woman in the previously described study who called after the
experiment and asked me to return and compare the effect of her husband with
that of her dog, another study done involves married couples (with and without
dogs and matched on age, education, income, etc.). This study involves the use
of a diary procedure for assessing and characterizing patterns of social
interaction in everyday life.
Some interesting results indicate that talking to dogs (in contrast to talking
only to one's spouse) is related to greater life satisfaction, greater marital
satisfaction and better physical and mental health. Put simply, the patterns
reveal that overall, the dog-owning couples are better off than those without
dogs, and that among dog owning couples, those with highest attachment to their
dogs, and those who confide in their dogs most frequently, fare the best of all.
As in the previously described experiment, participants in this study have
shared intriguing stories of how their dogs have helped them deal with stress
related to life changes and role transitions. Using the pet as a confidant, and
someone to "discuss" difficult situations with has emerged as an important
factor. The health benefits of "disclosure" and sharing problems with others has
been documented in the literature of health psychology, but the nature of their
confidant has not been described before to include animals.
Among the most devastating life changes for anyone to cope with is the
adjustment to living with a severely disabling disease or condition. In a recent
longitudinal study focused on service dogs, 48 people with severe physical
impairment (resulting from muscular dystrophy, traumatic brain injury, multiple
sclerosis, or spinal cord injury) were provided with specially trained service
dogs. Half of the group received dogs at the beginning of the study, and the
other half (matched on age, gender, and type of disability) formed a waitlist
control group which received dogs in year two of the study. In this
investigation we looked at variables such as self-esteem, psychological
well-being, and community integration. Briefly, this study demonstrated that
within six months of receiving a service dog, participants were significantly
improved on all factors under consideration, and that in addition, they needed
approximately 70 percent fewer hours of home aide after acquiring a service dog.
What this means in practical terms is that a group of people who were very
unhappy, isolated and lonely were helped by dogs to make a transition that
involved getting out of the house independently, enrolling in college classes,
becoming employed part-time, making friends, and gaining an enhanced feeling of
well-being and independence. A detailed account of this study was published in
the Journal of the American Medical Association, and it is hoped that this
report will encourage insurance companies to provide financial assistance for
One of the most endearing qualities of pets is that they provide consistent
companionship, and they are always ready to give and accept affection. This
attribute of a pet is very important when a person has a condition such as
Alzheimer's Disease. Although individuals with Alzheimer's Disease need to be
touched and loved as much as anyone else, they often receive less touch from
caregivers than do people with other conditions. Animals can help such people
feel loved and needed when human contact is diminished, and consequently enhance
a person's ability to deal with the life changes that accompany devastating
Since there is currently no cure for conditions such as Alzheimer's Disease or
AIDS, the goal of health care providers is to maintain as high a quality of life
as possible, and to address emotional and social needs of their patients.
Companion animals can play an important role in meeting this goal. For example,
in 1991 Carmack explored the role of companion animals for people who have AIDS
and concluded that animals provide affection, support, nurturance and acceptance
otherwise totally absent in the lives of most people who have AIDS. Participants
in Carmack's study were gay men who emphasized that their pets helped them
reduce stress, relax and feel better. Interestingly, pets were identified as an
important source of solace, and often, "the one who really listens," and "the
most important thing in my life." Carmack notes that successful coping with
extremely negative life events occurs when an individual perceives that he or
she has sufficient resources for coping. Such resources can be, of course, very
straightforward and easy to describe (e.g., food, medications, shelter), but
they can also be emotional, and therefore more difficult to quantify and
describe. Pets appear to enhance successful coping by providing a special kind
of emotional support to people regardless of the severity of their illness.
As we age, change and transition may become increasingly difficult to cope with.
Retirement, death of friends, debilitating illnesses, and forced relocation from
cherished homes to retirement communities, are just a few examples of the life
changes experienced by seniors. The importance of pets in the mental and
physical health of seniors has been a frequent topic of inquiry. For example, in
1981 Kidd and Feldman explored the relationship between experience with pets and
personality traits and found that, relative to non pet owners, pet owning
seniors responded to their questions in ways that indicated greater nurturance,
independence and optimism. Because loneliness is so often cited as the worst
aspect of aging, bonds of friendship between seniors and pets have also been
studied. For example, over a ten-month period in 1990 Peretti interviewed 128
seniors in a Chicago park, and found that respondents devoted considerably more
time to describing dogs as friends than to describing people as friends. Perhaps
most important and revealing was that 75 percent of men and 67 percent of women
reported that their dogs were their only friends. Further, the participants in
this study believed that the friendship bonds they had with their dogs were as
strong as their past friendships with other people. The most frequently
perceived aspects of friendship with dogs were identified as companionship,
emotional bond, usefulness, loyalty and the quality of needing no negotiation.
That quality was described as the perception that in a relationship with a dog,
relative to relationships with people, satisfaction and pleasure were attained
in a straightforward manner without any extraneous social dealing or bargaining.
For this group, need for attachment and interaction was adequately fulfilled by
In a 1993 study that focused on the role of pet dogs in conversations of senior
men and women, Rogers, Hart and Boltz found that dogs were a primary focus of
conversation, and suggested that pets may serve to buffer and normalize the
sense of isolation that often accompanies aging. The results of the studies
mentioned here, as well as the findings in a myriad of other earlier studies,
provide clear evidence that animals are capable of providing assistance in
coping with changes and transitions related to aging.
Thus far, this article has been about the possible role of pets in our efforts
to adapt to life events over which we have little, if any, control. In a
dramatic departure from thinking of pets as helpers in our adaptation, Dr.
William Thomas, author of The Eden Alternative, provides a detailed account of
how he incorporated pets, plants, children and enlightened thinking into
changing an entire nursing home environment. The nursing home in rural New York
State where Dr. Thomas created his "human habitat" is home to more than 100
birds, four dogs, two cats, several rabbits, and hundreds of indoor plants. The
nursing home hosts a summer camp for children and an after-school program as
well. Residents take care of animals and plants to the greatest degree their
physical condition will allow. The goal is to create a homelike social
environment, thereby easing the stress and reducing the number of changes
experienced by residents in their transition from their own homes to a
The human habitat approach has been overwhelmingly successful. Dr. Thomas' book
offers not only suggestions about how to replicate such an environment, but
evidence of important changes that have taken place as a result of the Eden
Alternative methods (relative to a comparable nearby nursing home that served as
a control facility). For example, Dr. Thomas reports a significant reduction in
medication use, especially psychotropic medications that tranquilize people
excessively. In addition, during the 18 months following full implementation of
the human habitat, there were 15 percent fewer deaths (40 vs. 47) at Dr. Thomas'
facility as compared to the control nursing home (in the data analysis patient
health status was considered, and no differences were found between the
residents prior to the introduction of the new environment). It is Dr. Thomas'
conviction that there are fewer deaths in his nursing home because people need a
reason to live, and the Eden Alternative provides many such reasons. The Eden
Alternative model provides dramatic evidence that sometimes change is Very Good!
Well-designed and implemented research on how people cope with changes in life
involves prospective, longitudinal studies, and is very costly and
time-consuming. It appears that in times of diminished federal funding for
social science research, collaboration is a good strategy for learning more
about the possible roles animals may play in life transitions. For example, if a
researcher is doing a long-term study about divorce or unemployment or stress
associated with care giving for a family member, if a few questions about pets
were included a great deal of valuable information would be gained. Restricting
our research to asking people about their coping methods after a stressful event
is problematic because we all tend to have very selective memories! Some
questions that would be especially important to address in a longitudinal manner
Is there a relationship between the presence of a pet and immune functioning
during a stressful life change event? It would be, for example, important to
determine if the stress experienced by spouses of people with Alzheimer's
Disease is moderated by having a pet. Also of interest would be a focus on
pets and long-term immune functioning in individuals with AIDS, Lupus
Erythematosus, and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
Can a close relationship with a pet buffer the acute stress associated with
divorce or death of a loved one, and moderate the long-term effects?
Is there a relationship between having a pet and adjusting to a new city, a
new job, or retirement? Each day we are presented with situations that can
either threaten or challenge us. Perhaps one of the ways pets help us turn
adversity into challenge is by the example they set. For pets each day is a
new opportunity for pleasurable, happy experiences. Hopefully, continued
research in this are will document just how and under what circumstances we
can "catch" their highly contagious enthusiasm for life.
Allen, K., Blascovich, J., Tomaka, J., & Kelsy, R.M. (1991). "Presence of
human friends and pet dogs as moderators of autonomic responses to stress in
women." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 61, 682-589.
Allen, K. & Blascovich, J. (1996a). "The value of service dogs for people with
severe ambulatory disabilities: A randomized controlled trial." Journal of the
American Medical Association, 275(13), 1001-1006.
Allen, K. & Blascovich, J. (1996b). "Anger and hostility among married
couples: Pet dogs as moderators of cardiovascular reactivity to psychological
stress." (Abstract of a conference presentation) Psychosomatic Medicine, 58,
Beck, C. & Heacock, P. (1988). "Nursing interventions for patients with
Alzheimer's disease." (Review). Nursing Clinics of North America. 23(1), 95
Berry, D.S. & Pennebaker. J.W. (1993). "Nonverbal and verbal emotional
expression and health." Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics, 59, 11-19.
Carmack, B.J. (1991). "The role of companion animals for persons with
AIDS/HIV." Holistic Nursing Practice, 5, 24-31.
Kidd, A.H. & Feldman, B.M. (1981). "Pet ownership and self-perception of older
people." Psychological Reports, 48, 867-875.
Peretti, P.O. (1990). "Elderly-animal friendship bonds." Social Behavior and
Personality, 18, 151-156.
Rogers, J., Hart, L.A. & Boltz, R.P. (1993). "The role of pet dogs in casual
conversation of elderly adults." Journal of Social Psychology, 133, 265-267.
Thomas, William H. (1994). The Eden Alternative: Nature, Hope, and Nursing
Homes. University of Missouri Press.
Karen Allen is a research scientist at State University of New York at Buffalo.
Originally published in Interactions, Vol. 13 #3, 1995, pp. 5-6, 8-10.