In my Facebook memories yesterday, for the 10th October last year, I was reminded of my honouring dogs and specifically my dog in supporting my mental health. (The post is shared here.)
By just being his nutty self; his existence provides so much, from worry to joy, from puzzlement to laughter. A lot of laughter. My dog doesn’t have to do any thing more, fulfil any other expectations; just show up, just be, just exist.
And I am extra appreciative of him and all that he brings during all this pandemic business; such a challenging time for our mental health, on many levels. I rely on his mere existence so much, particularly right now; what an awful lot of pressure on an individual who really has no control over what happens to him. I must make sure he never feels that pressure and gets to live his very best dog life. That’s the deal.
At the same time, I recognise that for many people, their mental health can suffer because of their dog’s existence. I work with a lot of people whose dog’s behaviour, and all the implications of it, are having serious repercussions for their mental health.
Are dogs really good for us?
Social media particularly, has glorified dogs to often unhealthy Disney levels. Dogs, or “doggos”, are presented as some sort of angels on earth, have “furmoms” and are “furkids”, want to be petted by all, and be “good bois”. Dogs are touted as being the only creature to love us, more than themselves.
And while calling pet owners or dogs whatever the internet likes probably doesn’t harm anyone, the attitude that this approach exploits may well be damaging.
I mean, how are dogs, real dogs, supposed to live up to any of that? Our attitude to dogs is so often inappropriate. It’s no wonder we presume that they are good for us, that ownership provides overwhelming benefits.
Sharing the reality of human-dog relationships wouldn’t make one very popular, especially online (eek!) so research and resources revealing the real complexities are not shared with such virality.
When dogs behave as real dogs should be expected to, there’s only one way down from that pedestal upon which we have placed them. Then they are vilified, abandoned, legislated against. Dogs can’t win.
Look out, bubble bursting ahead.
The problem isn’t just with distribution. When research is published showing benefits to human-dog interactions, these generally illustrate correlation. We just don’t know or understand the mechanisms by which dogs may provide the studied benefits.
I’m not sure I can even describe exactly what Decker does that gives me so much, although I know it’s just him, his being. (Not a very scientific conclusion at all!)
Maybe healthier people are more likely to have pets so it might appear that pet owning confers more health benefits, or maybe we can control for that in research, as suggested by Headey & Grabka, 2007.
When we look at the publications on these complex topics, the overall results are mixed, at best. You read one study demonstrating some benefit and just as easily, will find one revealing neutral or disadvantageous effects. I bet you can guess which one is shared and liked ad nauseum?!
- pet ownership may provide benefits in encouraging community interactions among people (Wood et al, 2007), but this may be dependent on the type of dog (Wells, 2004)
- Allen et al, 2001, demonstrated that having a friendly dog present may help with stress reduction (better than blood pressure lowering medications), while Grossberg et al, 1988, showed no beneficial effects to having a dog present.
- Brown & Rhodes (2006) showed that dog owners engaged in moderate activity almost twice as much as non-dog owners contributing to health benefits while Yabroff et al (2008) showed that owning a dog increased engagement in moderate activity by only 18 minutes a week, when compared to non-dog owners.
The samples studied may also mislead results and interpretations. (Carr et 2019). Miles et al, 2017, showed that once controlled for confounding factors, there were really no statistically significant benefits demonstrated.
- Mubanga et al, 2017, 2019, show improved survival after cardiovascular events in dog ownership but that these protective benefits are associated with pedigree dog ownership, rather than mix breeds. This correlation is not clear; perhaps people purchasing a specific pedigree dog have done so to participate in some activity that contributes to improved health.
- While Covert et al, 1985, suggests that children with dogs are more socially confident, it could also be that confident children are more likely to get a dog.
The body of research looking at the benefits of pet ownership is just not clear cut, with some insisting that the idea that pets are good for us (the so-called “pet effect”), which has become a media, cultural and marketing constant, is largely an unsubstantiated hypothesis.
The Whitehall Cohort study (Mein & Grant 2018) covers a large sample over time and really doesn’t indicate any great benefits to pet ownership.
Even when positive improvements where shown, such as dog owners taking more exercise, no significant improvements in health outcomes, such as weight or blood pressure, were demonstrated.
The researchers concluded that there were no significant differences between pet owners and non-pet owners on various health variables including quality of life, mental health, physical health and depression.
What about human mental health?
Interest in the effects of pets on health has become more and more popular over the last couple of decades and there has been some research specifically examining how pets may or may not benefit our mental health.
Although not a review, Herzog reflects on 30 pieces of research that have examined pets and human depression. You can read that here.
He concludes that most research doesn’t demonstrate benefits to owning a pet in susceptibility to depression, but that for some groups of people, there may be benefits.
Further, Batty & Bell, 2018, showed that while there are identifiable risk factors, such as mental health, in suicide cases, owning a pet doesn’t seem to provide benefits in its prevention. Indeed, there is a lot of discussion in this industry about the rates of suicide among animal care workers and vets, most of whom will own pets.
Are we good for dogs?
Here’s the thing, in all this interest in pets’ effects on our health, there is very little research asking, specifically, if we are good for dogs.
Looking across the contexts in which we ‘use’ dogs, from working to assistance dogs, from sports to therapy dogs, there is very little work that looks at the experiences from the dogs’ point of view, truly examining their welfare.
And even less focusing on companion dogs.
Modern companion dogs experience many challenges to their welfare including long periods of social isolation, living in under-enriched environments, decreased access to behavioural outlets, obesity, extreme conformations, genetic disease and more.
While there are evolutionary benefits to dogs becoming a companion dog, such as access to food and shelter, the modern companion dog faces an awful lot of disadvantages for hanging out with humans.
And we have selected for them to be totally reliant on us, while at the same time not providing them with choice and enrichment suitable to their welfare. We have made an animal that takes our crap, and loves us for it.
Love isn’t enough
We all love dogs; that’s why we’re here. But accounting for their welfare will require more than love.
Love alone doesn’t keep dogs in homes. Patronek & Rowan, 1995, devised a model to calculate the numbers of dogs in the US; they concluded that there may be about 4m dogs living in shelters. Here, there are likely many hundreds, if not thousands of dogs living in shelters and similar environments.
Merely keeping dogs alive because they might comfort or entertain us, isn’t good enough. Dogs have needs, regardless of our beliefs or wants.
What about their mental health?
Recognition of human mental health is increasing and improving. This is a good thing but we still have a long way to go.
This raised awareness benefits dogs too; more and more people are recognising the need to cater for their dogs’ behavioural and emotional health. Also a good thing, and also a very long way to go.
Presuming that dogs are happy because they live with humans, and benefit humans, is terribly short-sighted and anthropocentric.
We have tendencies toward interpreting their behaviour as we do that of humans (Kujala et al, 2012), and this leads to misinterpreting their needs and their welfare requirements.
We might even have difficulty assessing our dogs’ comfort in contexts where we accept they might feel uncomfortable, such as at the vets (Mariti et al, 2015) and in situations that may present safety concerns, such as in interactions with children. (Demirbas et al, 2016)
We are truly lucky that dogs are so adaptable and pretty inhibited when it comes to aggressive responding toward humans.
Luck isn’t enough either.
Lockdown, loneliness and pets
Since March, here and apparently in the US and the UK, there has been a surge in applications to foster and adopt dogs, and in the numbers of puppies and new dogs purchased.
There is a widely held belief that pet ownership helps to combat loneliness; this is very much part of that perceived ‘pet effect’ already discussed as a marketing and social media staple. (HABRI 2019) (Staats et al, 2008)
Do pets help reduce loneliness?
Again, despite widely held beliefs, the literature doesn’t really offer such strong recommendations for pet ownership in combatting loneliness.
For example, Gilbey & Kawtar, 2015, reviewed thirteen works showing that pet ownership didn’t convincingly alleviate loneliness. They concluded that more modern research of better quality couldn’t demonstrate a reduction in loneliness associated with pet ownership.
One study has even shown that pet ownership may be a predictor of loneliness, especially in older women. Feeling lonely might cause a person to get a dog, but not actually reduce their feelings of loneliness. (Pikhartova, Bowling & Victor, 2014)
Most works, again, present mixed results. Powell et al, 2014, found that controlling for group differences reduced the benefits to mental health associated with adopting a dog.
Owning a dog may reduce loneliness for women living alone and appears to enhance the attachment relationship for the human. (Zasloff & Kidd, 1994) but again, there may be confounding factors, such as feelings of improved safety or security.
Indeed, spending a lot of time with a pet, may be socially isolating for many.
Pets and the Pandemic
Given the unusual and real-time effects that lockdown and COVID-19 present, there has been a lot of interest from researchers and lots of surveys have been distributed for analysis. We can look forward to a lot of masters candidates papers in the coming months…
With widespread lockdowns being mandated in jurisdictions all over, our mental health is extra vulnerable. Women’s mental health seems to be particularly badly hit. (Ozdin & Ozdin, 2020)
Combatting these mental health challenges is thought to be behind this motivation to get a new dog.
What’s interesting here is that there is a positive correlation between mindfulness and mental health. (Soysa & Wilcomb, 2013) (Schutte & Malouf, 2018) And pets may encourage pet owners to engage in mindfulness; play, interactions, exercise with their pets providing a positive focus keeping us in the now and connecting us with Nature. (Garcia, B. S. (2020). A dogs impact: People’s lived experience of the role of dog companionship on their wellbeing and sense of purpose. Unpublished Graduate Diploma dissertation]. Monash University.) (Jackson-Grossblat et al, 2016)
Specific to the effects of pandemic related lockdowns, Olivia & Johnston, 2020, showed some interesting results. Although this work did not demonstrate interactions with dogs lowering loneliness scores, having a dog, and practicing mindfulness may contribute to buffering the effects of some aspects of loneliness.
Owning a dog has certainly been encouraging more people to get out walking. This has been very evident during lockdown and sometimes, causing great difficulty for those who own more sensitive dogs. This may also contribute to the mental health of some owners and the behavioural and emotional health of some dogs deteriorating.
We have written about this too: A Good Walk Spoiled
Certainly, helping people develop better dog walking etiquette, managing their dog’s behaviour and understanding the comfort of their own dog and others’ dogs has been revealed as important as it certainly looks like rolling lockdowns will be part of our future.
Further unrealistic expectations, and unsuitable environmental conditions, may be affecting the welfare of companion dogs in these contexts.
Expectations & Presumptions
You can see how easily we develop, or are made to develop, these unrealistic expectations of dogs. When dogs don’t live up to these human expectations, their welfare is in peril.
Salman et al, 2000, showed that dog behaviour was the main reason for dogs to become unwanted. Normal dog behaviour, not living up to our unrealistic expectations.
We presume that dogs will help us better deal with the challenges and struggles so salient right now, and we so want to believe that getting a dog will benefit us.
But, perhaps, instead of presuming that a dog will bring all these benefits to our lives, let’s start to ask what WE can offer a dog.
How can we better provide for their welfare? What do we need to do? What can we realistically provide now, and in the future, that’s appropriate to the dog we choose?
I’ve said it many times that most dogs have really benefitted from the changes, in their humans’ lives, relating to lockdown. Suddenly, their humans are home a lot more, the dog is getting out a whole lot more, few visitors coming to the home and dogs are getting a whole lot more distance from strangers. This is a big win for dogs.
What’s going to happen as their humans start to go back to the real world and their real lives?
We won’t be on lockdown forever and even when people are working from home, they are still working.
Basing the decision to get a dog on our expectations of a new dog and presumptions of how they may benefit us, may not contribute to the mental health of pet owners and the behavioural and emotional health of dogs long term.
ETA: A timely addition to the conversation from Hal Herzog on Psychology Today looking at whether pets are improving our mental health during the pandemic.
As we’ve discussed at length, the results are mixed with some beneficial effects, but very small measures.
Our mental health
Dogs are the most awesome creatures. Even though they aren’t magic, don’t really save people from burning buildings, and probably don’t love us more than themselves, dogs are brilliant and uninhibited, and silly and serious. They don’t have to have some intrinsic value or provide all sorts of benefits to me, to be amazing.
Regardless of all this who-truly-benefits-whom malarky, our mental health, as dog owners, is inextricably linked with that of our pets, and vice versa.
And does it really matter to you, what the literature says. How does your pet help you and how do you help them? That’s what really matters, right?!
It’s ok to feel overwhelmed by your dog’s behaviour, at not knowing what to do, at worrying that you are not doing enough. Especially against a backdrop of a global pandemic, economic crises, health scares and everything else.
While we are talking about mental health, let’s concentrate on making sure that we are looking after ourselves, and one another when we can, and our pets, who rely on us, without question or choice. That’s a lot.
We might find joy and relief in truly providing for our dog’s behavioural and emotional health; that certainly helps me. But I recognise that won’t be the same for all. I have access to resources and skills that mean I am better able to manage and provide for my dog’s behaviour. This just isn’t available to every pet owner on tap.
Having to seek help, having to even think about it, may be anxiety inducing and feeling unable to adequately resolve issues can be crippling. That’s ok.
It’s ok to breathe and admit that sometimes or a lot of times, your dog’s behaviour causes you concern, anxiety, panic. It’s ok to not know what to do about it. It’s ok to feel conflicted about your dog; that you love them but might not like them. It’s ok to admit that you may have done or be doing all that you can realistically do, and still feel like that’s not enough. It’s ok.
#100daysofenrichment is free and requires very little further spending and minimal effort on each day. Doing small bits of this program, or diving in when you are up to it, will greatly help in improving your dog’s behavioural and emotional health.
#100daysofenrichment program has some mindfulness, with your dog, emphasis and this may be particularly beneficial. (Shearer et al, 2016)
Working through the program may help in having a positive focus and structured plan and the accompanying Facebook group is a lovely supportive place.
We encourage you to seek help as early as you can, for yourself, for your dog. We are here to support you as best we can. Seek help. It’s ok.