Coping with Life Changes & Transitions: The Role of Pet 

by Karen Allen, PhD

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 
life events.

Women and Dogs: Turning Threat into Challenge

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.

Communication in Marriage: Who Talks to Dogs? 

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.

Pets and People with Disabilities: Transition from Discouragement to Hope

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 
such dogs. 

Coping with Alzheimer's and AIDS 

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.

Pets and People Who Are Elderly: Living in the Community

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 
their dogs. 
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.

Seniors in Nursing Homes: Pets as Part of a Human Habitat 

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 
community-based home.
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!

Possible Directions for Future Research: Life Changes and Pets

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.

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