Dealing with the isolation, fear, and grief of an epidemic can be a little easier if you have a lovable, confident dog by your side.
But you don’t need to tell François Martin, a researcher who studies the connections between animals and humans.
He has been helped by two senior Danes over the past two years, and he has just completed a study showing that living with a dog gives people a stronger sense of social support and mitigates some of the negative psychological effects of the pandemic.
When you ask people, ‘Why is your dog important to you? What does your dog give you? “People will say it’s companionship. It’s a feeling of belonging to a group that includes your family dog. It keeps people busy,” said Martin, Head of Behavior and Welfare Group at Nestlé Purina in St. Joseph, Mo.
“If you have a dog, you have to walk the dog, you have to exercise the dog. It gives you a sense of purpose,” Martin said.
“It’s just fun,” Martin added. “I don’t know anyone who is as happy as my dogs to see me every day.”
His team saw the pandemic as a unique time to better understand how dogs can provide social support to their owners.
To do this, they surveyed more than 1,500 participants who had puppies or dogs that were not classified as support animals.
Martin noted that the survey, which was conducted in November 2020 and spring 2021, did not include owners of other types of pets because there is some evidence that different types may offer different types of support.
The researchers found that depression scores were significantly lower for dog owners than for prospective dog owners. The owners also had a more positive attitude and commitment to pets.
The two groups had no difference in anxiety or happiness scores.
“In terms of trying to quantify the impact of dog ownership on depression, for example, and anxiety, we saw that people with low social support who were most affected by COVID-19, you can see that their dog’s importance was even stronger,” Martin said.
“If you are already doing well and not affected much by the COVID-19 situation, it is unlikely that owning a dog will help you be less depressed because you are already not very depressed, but we have seen that people who have been and are on the other end..you can measure the effect more accurately.”
In his own situation, Martin already had a support system, so although he definitely enjoyed having his dogs around, that didn’t change his mood.
However, it can happen to someone who may be more personally affected by the pandemic.
The study was published Wednesday in the journal PLOS One.
Pets can provide affection, companionship, and entertainment, said Teri Wright, a mental health therapist at a private practice in Santa Ana, California. However, it may not be the right choice for everyone.
People ask me the following question: Do you think animals, pets, and dogs are good for depression, loneliness, and psychological causes? And I would say it depends that they can also create a great deal of stress. And so it depends on the person,” Wright said.
While Wright has a dog at home, in her office there is a rabbit named Dusty who helps her with her therapy practice. She said it acts as an icebreaker and helps people relax.
Stanley Coren wrote a lot about dogs and spent time during the pandemic with his two, a Nova Scotia duck named Ranger and a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel named Ripley.
Corinne, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, was not affiliated with this study.
He said the differences between anxiety and depression may be why the dogs affected one over the other for the study participants.
Corinne said it may be possible for someone who pets their dog to have a temporary decrease in stress or anxiety, rather than a long-term decrease.
Koren suggested that “during COVID-19, there are a lot of worries. The dog will relieve social anxiety, but not medical anxiety or financial anxiety.”
Corinne said dogs may help reduce depression because they give a person unconditional positive respect. This can be especially helpful in times like a pandemic, especially for someone who has no other social support.
“If you live alone or have minimal social support, I think a dog is a good helper for your mental health,” said Corinne.
More work is needed to understand the relationship between pet ownership and social support and how this affects the owner’s well-being, according to the researchers.
“I think if you are a dog lover and you are in a position to own and take care of him or her, I think it shows that you have to, that dogs actually contribute to the general well-being of people,” Martin said.
The American Psychological Association has more on the human-animal bond.
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