Those of us with dogs know that they can be wonderful companions. Though they take some effort to care for, the love and joy they bring to your life is often well worth the cost.
Now, a new study suggests something else your dog may provide: relief from anxiety.
In this study, 73 pet owners reported on their stress levels, their history with animals, their attitude toward dogs, how long they’d owned their pet dog, and how closely bonded they were with their dog before undergoing a test designed to induce stress. The test involved adding up numbers with sums under 20, but under increasingly difficult time constraints, with a loud, explosive sound going off any time they gave a wrong answer.
Following the stress test, dog owners reported on how stressed they were (to verify that the stress test worked), as well as their levels of anxiety and positive and negative feelings. Then, they were randomly assigned to one of three groups for 10 minutes: to interact with their dog, work on a “stress-reducing” coloring book, or wait quietly to see their dog.
Through hidden cameras, research assistants noted how much time people in the first group spent with their dog—talking to, playing with, or touching and petting them. After 10 minutes had passed, all participants again reported how anxious they were and how positive or negative they felt.
The results were clear: People who interacted with their dog felt less anxiety and experienced more positive feelings than those who colored or waited to see their dog. This was true regardless of how much people had experience with animals generally, how long they’d owned their dog, or how strongly bonded they felt to their dog. Characteristics of the dog itself, such as its breed or age, also didn’t make a difference.
“There’s something special about being with your pet compared to another activity purported to de-stress you, or compared to doing basically nothing,” says study coauthor Hannah Ralia of the University of California, Santa Cruz.
Why would being with our dog provide relief from anxiety? This study didn’t investigate that, but one possibility is emotional contagion. A pet reunited with its owner after being separated is likely to be excited and happy, so that might rub off on the owner. Or perhaps focusing on a beloved pet takes your attention away from your own anxiety, or the act of petting or playing with a dog is soothing in itself.
Though the dog group didn’t decrease in negative emotions overall, that was true of people who spent significantly more time interacting with their dog compared to those who spent less time. Apparently, the more you interact with your dog, the better—though even brief interactions have advantages.
“I don’t want to be overly grandiose in this conclusion, but it’s nice to know that if you feel stressed, spending time with your dog can be an intentional way to comfort yourself, to make yourself feel a little bit lighter, a little bit less anxious,” says Ralia.
Perhaps our dogs are a balm for what ails us—the anxiety of living in uncertain times, and the stress and loneliness many of us feel.
The psychology of dog ownership
These results are in line with prior research finding that the presence of dogs can alleviate distress and lessen the physiological markers of stress in people going through difficult times. But they differ from past research because this study helped show cause and effect, and the participants interacted with their own dogs rather than therapy or companion dogs.
“[We’re] able to make more definitive conclusions about just how emotionally beneficial dogs can be for us,” says Ralia.
Overall, the study suggests that dog ownership could provide benefits for mental health regardless of whether the dogs are trained therapy animals.
“In combination with a lot of other research on human/animal interactions, one recommendation might be to get pet dogs, though I don’t think we’d want to say that everyone should go get a dog,” says Ralia. “Pet dogs could come with other stressors, like having to feed and walk them. But, for people who own dogs, they might want to interact more with them to relieve stress.”
Though cats were not studied in this experiment, it’s possible cats, too, would provide anxiety relief, given past research on cat ownership. However, most research in this area has been done with dogs, says Ralia, perhaps because they are more easily trained as therapy animals and are, generally speaking, more social.
Whatever the case, there’s certainly more room for research, Ralia says. She would like to see researchers study if these anxiety-reducing effects are more likely to occur for certain groups of people, with other pets, and for particular aspects of pet interaction.
For example, some kinds of touching could be more positive than others—petting a dog while it sits quietly on your lap may be more stress-relieving than if it’s jumping up and down on your legs. Similarly, certain kinds of play with your dog could induce more positive feelings than others.
Ralia hopes her study will encourage policymakers to reconsider barriers that keep people from being able to own dogs or be near them—for example, restrictions in housing, workplaces, or travel. Perhaps if we did, more people would be able to experience the emotional support that having a loving pet dog around can provide.