III Human–dog interactions
12 Dogs as human companions: a review of the
LYNETTE A. HART
People have been closely associated with dogs – or with their wolf ancestors – for many
thousands of years, although the precise origin of the relationship is still the subject of
speculation (see Clutton-Brock, 1980 and Chapter 2). Evidence from Epipalaeolithic and
early Neolithic sites indicates that humans probably began taming wolves at least 12 000
years ago, and it is clear that by the time of the ancient Egyptians several distinct breeds
of dogs already existed (Clutton-Brock, 1976). Currently in the United States, more than
50 million dogs reside in roughly 38% of all households (Market Research Corporation
of America, 1987; American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, 1988). Of these,
the vast majority are kept as social companions.
Are dogs special?
Comparisons with other species
Among the array of different species that serve as companion animals, dogs are in many
ways exceptional. As early as the turn of this century, a large survey of children’s school
essays about pet animals had already demonstrated the dog’s outstanding popularity
(Bucke, 1903). The children in this survey emphasized the highly personalized attention
provided by their dogs with phrases such as ‘he likes me’, ‘guards me’, ‘follows me’,
‘protects me’,’ ‘barks when I come home from school’, ‘is good to me’ and so on. The
children also appreciated the dog’s ability to express love and affection by jumping up,
running around, wagging its tail and soliciting play. In addition, many mentioned how the
dog kept them company and played with them when they were feeling lonely or sad.
Many of these early observations have now been confirmed by the results of more recent
In a telephone survey of 436 Rhode Island residents, for example, Albert & Bulcroft
(1987, 1988) found that dogs were the most popular pet. Sixty per cent of pet owners had
at least one dog, and dogs were the most desired pet among non-owners. Owners who
selected dogs as their favorite pets reported feeling more attached to their pets than did
people whose favorite pets were cats or other animals. Dogs also seemed to be more
adept at playing affectionate and emotionally supportive roles than other animals, leading
the authors to suggest that perhaps dogs interacted with their owners in ways resulting in
higher levels of attachment. The survey found that dog owners spent more time actively
interacting with their pets – grooming them, walking them, giving them special treats –
than did cat owners (see Fig. 12.1). Dog owners were also more willing to spend any
amount on veterinary treatment than cat owners, although more cat than dog owners
admitted to sleeping with their pets.
In another study based on observations of people and their pets interacting at home,
Miller & Lago (1990) found that interactive behavior, such as whining, begging, making
noise, obeying and being near the owner, occurred at far greater frequency with dogs than
with cats (see Fig. 12.2). Dogs also interacted actively with unfamiliar persons whereas
cats tended to be calm and aloof (Fig. 12.3). Owners issued a mean of 0.48 orders to their
dogs, as compared with 0.07 orders given to cats. However, owners told an average of
1.87 stories about their cats but only 1.32 stories about dogs. In a previous study, Lago,
Knight & Connell (1983) had reported higher levels of both behavioral and physical
intimacy between dogs and their owners than between people and cats, although some cat
owners were also extremely attached to their pets. Seventy-one per cent of dog owners
also regarded themselves as dominant compared to only 57% of cat owners. Overall,
these studies suggest that dogs are better at adjusting their interactions to the owner’s
demands than other companion animals. Dogs exhibit highly coordinated behavior;
standing, moving and sitting in synchrony with their owners to an extent rarely observed
Fig. 12.1. Descriptions of involvement and activities with dogs and cats as reported by
owners. After Albert & Bulcroft (1987).
Fig. 12.2. Mean frequency that specific behaviors were performed by dogs and cats
observed with their owners and a stranger at home. After Miller & Lago (1990).
Fig. 12.3. Mean frequency that specific behaviors were directed toward a stranger by
dogs and cats observed with their owners at home. After Miller & Lago (1990).
When dog owners in Melbourne, Australia, were asked to supply a list of adjectives
describing their dogs, and these were subsequently subjected to factor analysis, three
major factors emerged: acceptance/trust, love/friendship and intelligence/obedience
(Salmon & Salmon, 1983). These owners felt that the main benefits of dog ownership
were companionship, protection and happiness or pleasure. Three-quarters of them felt a
need to be physically protected by a dog, and the same number believed that their dog
helped to protect their home from burglary.
Comparisons with human companions
Two previous studies have attempted to compare the importance of pets with that of
human family members. The first, without distinguishing the species of pet, surveyed a
convenience sample of 62 respondents of whom 8% reported feeling closer to the pet
than to anyone else in the family. However, a much higher number (44%) reported that
the pet received the most strokes of anyone in the family, and that it served as the focus
of favorable attention. Many of these pet owners seemed to find it easier to offer affection
to their animals than to other family members. In many cases, the animal was also highly
emotionally involved with the people in the households surveyed. Eighty-one per cent of
respondents reported that pets reacted to anxiety and tension within the family by
developing diarrhea, gastric upsets or epileptic seizures (Cain, 1983).
The second study sought to assess the relative closeness that dog owners felt towards
their dogs by asking them to represent their significant relationships pictorially using a
technique known as the Family Life Space Diagram. More than one-third of these owners
placed the dog closer to themselves than to any other family member (Barker & Barker,
1988). Taken together, the results of these two studies suggest that, for about a third of
owners, the dog’s importance ranks on a par with that of human members of the family.
When Davis (1987a) asked preadolescents the reasons why their families had acquired a
dog, most referred to a sort of pet deficit – simply needing a pet – as the main reason.
Entertainment, the parents’ need for a pet, companionship and love were also mentioned
but by fewer children (see Fig. 12.4). In another study (Bryant, 1985, 1986), children of a
similar age mentioned play/companionship, love/affection, physical qualities, good
temperament, entertainment, reliable friend and opportunities for nurturance when asked
what their own pets provided. When describing neighborhood pets, however, love and
reliable friendship were omitted from the list of special traits. The three most frequent
interactions with dogs revealed in a survey of ten-year-olds were: playing with,
exercising and talking to dogs (MacDonald, 1981).
Fig. 12.4. Reasons families acquire a dog as reported by preadolescents. After Davis
Why dogs are special
Displays of affection
Many behavior patterns of dogs seem especially designed to elicit attachment. Dogs are
naturally affectionate, a trait that is more characteristic of some breeds than others (Hart
& Hart, 1988), and they can even be instructed to provide affection. It is standard
practice, for example, to teach service dogs that assist people who use wheelchairs to
provide their owners with displays of affection in response to a verbal command (Mader,
Hart & Bergin, 1989).
Darwin (1873) described the specific behavior patterns dogs use to express affection.
They include: lowering the head and whole body with the tail extended and wagging
from side to side, drawing the ears back alongside the head, rubbing up against the
owner, and attempting to lick the owner’s hands, face or ears. These ritualized greeting
signals indicate to owners that the dog is pleased to see them. Dogs seek out their owners
for mutual contact, and provide affection that is not contingent upon the owner’s success
or appearance. In this way, dogs may provide their owners with feelings of unconditional
acceptance and, at the same time, enhance the person’s attachment to the dog (Catanzaro,
1984; Voith, 1985). The unconditional nature of the dog’s affection may also allow
owners to direct or redirect anger at the dog without putting the entire relationship at risk.
Loyalty and devotion
Certain traits make dogs ideally suited to be human companions. They develop specific
attachments for individuals, and remain near or in physical contact with their owners as if
attached by an invisible cord. They also tend to be active during the daytime when people
are active and, with appropriate training, they defer to us as dominant social partners.
More important, however, are dogs’ extraordinary powers of nonverbal expression by
which they signal their love and regard for humans.
In order to assess the satisfaction of dog owners with various aspects of their pets’
behavior, Serpell (1983) invited 57 urban dog owners to rate both their own pets and a
hypothetical ‘ideal’ dog on 22 different behavioral traits. The traits with the highest
ratings and the least variability between owners included expressiveness, enjoyment of
walks, loyalty/affection, welcoming behavior and attentiveness. These ratings also
corresponded closely with the owners’ ‘ideal’ ratings. Traits with more average ratings
and considerable variation between owners included playfulness, attachment to one
person, friendliness to other people, territoriality, friendliness to other dogs, attitude to
food and sense of humor. Serpell (1983) concluded from this that owners varied in their
preferences for these traits and that they were therefore less important for insuring
compatibility in the relationship.
A further important asset of dogs, although it is one they share in common with other
pets, is that they lack the power of speech and are therefore unable to offer advice,
judgement or criticism. Nevertheless, they are affectionate and empathic so their
friendship tends to be seen as sincere, reliable and trustworthy, while at the same time
lacking many of the threats associated with human friendships (Serpell, 1986a).
According to one study (Stallones et al., 1988), 95% of pet owners regard their pets as
friends. A similar proportion of dog owners reported playing often with their pets, as
compared with only 73% of cat owners. Similarly, when asked to respond to the
statement, ‘the dog gives me an outlet for playfulness’, 80% of 259 Swedish dog-owners
agreed (Adell-Bath et al., 1979). In another study involving observations of people
walking their dogs, some type of game with the dog was observed on 36% of walks
(Messent, 1983). In general, more fetch-type games were played with medium-sized to
large dogs than with small ones.
Surprisingly little is known about the amount of time people spend playing with their
animal companions. In a survey of Swiss pet owners, Turner (1985) found that dog
owners reported spending an average of 17.5 hours per week interacting with their pets
while cat owners reported an average of only 10 hours. However, when 96 California
veterinary students were asked to estimate the amount of time they spent interacting with
their pets, the dog owners averaged 35.3 hours per week and the cat owners averaged
33.2 hours. For dog owners, 44% of this time was estimated as play, as compared with
36% for cat owners (J. Angus, personal communication).
Fig. 12.5. Attraction of young children to animals. Young toddlers respond to both
mechanical and live dogs, but a real dog elicits the stronger interest (Kidd & Kidd, 1987).
Photograph: Joan Borinstein.
A study of three- to four-year-old children’s interactions with dogs revealed that 67% of
these interactions involved body contact with the dog, such as putting a hand on the dog,
patting it or hitting it. In contrast, vocal and verbal behavior comprised only 9% of the
interactions (Millot & Filiatre, 1986). In a subsequent study touching was again the most
frequent behavior shown in the presence of a dog, accounting for 40% of all child-dog
interactions (Filiatre et al., 1988).
In an analysis of 1105 photographs of dogs or cats in a family setting submitted to a
national photographic contest, Katcher & Beck (1985) found that 97% of the pictures
illustrated people and animals touching each other, generally with the heads of the animal
and human close together. Over 92% showed a dyadic relationship, with one person and
one animal occupying the center of the photograph. Touching was also a primary mode
of interaction with a dog in a study of nursing home residents (Neer, Dorn & Grayson,
1987). Of the nine different types of interaction recorded involving the dog, grooming
and touching were the two most commonly employed by residents.
The value of dogs for different types of people
Albert & Bulcroft’s (1987, 1988) Rhode Island study found that households with children
at home tended to have more pets than either widows or families with an ‘empty nest’, or
with an infant. However, feelings of attachment to the pet were lowest in families where
children were at home. Although pet ownership was highest among households
containing large families, attachment to pets was highest among people living alone and
among couples who did not have children living at home. The authors noted that the
single, divorced and widowed individuals and childless couples who were most attached
to their pets also expressed more anthropomorphic attitudes to their pets, particularly in
relation to dogs. In a longitudinal study of older people (a population that experiences
increasing losses), Lago, Connell & Knight (1985) found that persons who stayed at
home and spent more time with the animal also became more attached and formed a
stronger relationship with it.
An ‘invisible cord’ often seems to connect a dog to its owner (Serpell, 1986a). Almost
invariably, dogs are more attentive to their owners than their owners are to them. In a
study of ten families’ interactions with their dogs, the associations between the dog and
the adult family members were found to differ between families with and without
children (Smith, 1983). In childless families the people and the dog interacted more
readily, more frequently and in a more complex fashion, and the dog spent more time in
close proximity to someone. In contrast, dogs in families with children interacted less
frequently per person per hour, even when the children were not physically present.
The results of another survey (Salmon & Salmon, 1983) suggested that dogs satisfied
more of the needs of widowed, separated and divorced people than those of people at
other stages of life. Apparently, the needs of these people were not being met fully by a
family network, and hence the dog was playing a more important part in their lives. The
dog was more of a close friend, more like a child, made them feel safer and provided
them with greater opportunity for exercise than it did for people with intact families.
Among older childless couples, 73% believed that walking the dog had encouraged
conversations with people, as compared with only 48% of people at other stages of life.
Findings from a survey of 1144 elderly, married women in Maryland pointed to the risks
of having a pet and not being very attached to it (Ory & Goldberg, 1983). Thirteen per
cent of women who were not attached to their pets reported that they were unhappy, as
compared with 6% for attached pet owners and 5.5% for nonowners (see Fig. 12.6).
Furthermore, for a greater percentage of these married women in the nonattached group,
the spouse failed to serve as a satisfactory confidant (31.4%, as compared with 23.0% of
the attached group, and 20.3% of the nonowners). These data support the view that
women who have pets but who are not attached to them are also significantly worse off in
their relationships with people. In a related finding, Brown, Shaw & Kirkland (1972)
found that low affection for dogs was associated with low affection for people. In the
case of men, low affection was also associated with a low desire for such affection.
The foregoing studies suggest that the mutual attachment between dogs and humans tends
to increase with time spent together. For people who form close attachments to people
and/or dogs, a dog may become a central focus of attention and love when the person’s
other social contacts are diminished.
Fig. 12.6. Percentage of married women who described themselves as being unhappy and
whose spouse was not a confidant, expressed as a function of pet ownership and
attachment to the pet. After Ory & Goldberg (1983).
Socialization effects of dogs for people
The idea that dogs facilitate human social interactions seems almost self-evident. In a
study of 259 Swedish dog owners, 83% of those questioned agreed with the statement,
‘My dog gives me the opportunity of talking with other people’ (Adell-Bath et al., 1979).
Seventy-nine per cent also agreed with the statement, ‘The dog makes friends for me’.
As scientific exploration of pet ownership has diversified, more evidence has emerged of
what Mugford (1980) has termed ‘the social significance of pet ownership.’ In this
farsighted paper, Mugford initially focuses on the significance of companionship by
animals in fostering two major motivating needs for humans: affiliation and self-esteem.
He then addresses additional psychological benefits of pet ownership, including the fact
that they play, give and accept love, provide emotional security and serve as child
substitutes. After reviewing the available literature, he concludes that the practical
outcome of pet ownership, particularly ownership of dogs, is to increase the owners’
extraversion and so promote social interactions within both the home and the community.
Observing people walking in a London park, Messent (1984) found that the company of a
dog greatly facilitated the walkers’ conversations with strangers. Another study
conducted around the same time showed that the presence of an animal in drawings
caused the people in the drawings to be perceived as more satisfied, friendly, industrious,
wealthy, happy, generous and comfortable (Lockwood, 1983).
The social value of canine companionship and partnership is most obvious with persons
who use wheelchairs and have service dogs (Hart, 1990). A series of studies have been
conducted to assess whether service dogs can enhance the social attractiveness and
acceptance of people with disabilities. In retrospective interviews, disabled individuals
with service dogs estimated a median of eight friendly approaches from adults per
shopping trip, while only one friendly approach was estimated if a dog was not present
(Hart, Hart & Bergin, 1987). In a prospective study, the spontaneous responses of
strangers to people in wheelchairs with or without service dogs were compared (Eddy,
Hart & Boltz, 1988). As shown in Fig. 12.7, wheelchair-bound adults with service dogs
received more social acknowledgments from passersby than those unaccompanied by
dogs. Studies of disabled children have documented similar effects (Mader et al., 1989).
The increased social acceptance of disabled children with service dogs occurred even on
the school playground – where able-bodied children were accustomed to seeing the dog
every day – as well as in a shopping mall where the dog was a novelty. A dog can
therefore normalize social responses to those individuals who often would be ignored or
avoided because of a disability, shyness or physical unattractiveness.
Dogs seem to display an inexhaustible willingness to form and sustain partnerships with
humans. This is illustrated most dramatically by the partnership between service dogs and
people in wheelchairs. The dog and its owner come to be seen by other people as a team,
more predictably together than any mother and child, marital couple or pair of siblings.
With such closeness, the dog–person team enjoys certain advantages typical of any party
whose members are perceived to be together (Goffman, 1971). This closeness is made
evident to both the owner and to onlookers by the dog’s alert attention and
responsiveness to the owner’s commands.
Fig. 12.7. Socializing effect of service dogs. When they had service dogs, people using
wheelchairs were frequently approached by passersby.
In order to investigate the conversations of able-bodied people walking their dogs,
Rogers, Hart & Boltz (1989) invited a sample of dog walkers to carry small tape
recorders. It was found that all walkers talked to their dogs, as well as asking them
questions. Dog walkers exchanged greetings and casual conversations with passersby, but
tended to engage in fewer long, involved stories than persons walking without dogs.
Consequently, dog walkers uttered fewer verbs in the past tense than did other walkers;
conversations of dog walkers were in the here-and-now. About 80% of nouns uttered by
people walking dogs referred to the dog. Among passersby speaking with a dog owner,
about 25% of the nouns referred to the dog, and this was true whether or not the dog was
present. Thus, the dog served an important role as both a conversational partner and as a
focus of conversations with passersby.
The experience of talking and playing with a pet, especially a dog, may educate a child in
some of the subtleties of social relationships. In a study of German adolescents, pet
owners were found to be more skilled at decoding human, nonverbal facial expressions
(Guttmann, Predovic & Zemanek, 1985). This effect was particularly noticeable among
boys. This ability appeared to be associated with greater social acceptance, since pet
owners were selected more frequently by others to be confidants, companions and
partners. Pet-owning children were also more willing to establish new friends. When
children were asked in another study to rate their own social competence, their self-
ratings were positively associated with the number of pets in the family and most felt that
their pets had helped them to make friends (Serpell, 1986b).
Foster children are especially vulnerable socially because they lack the secure position in
the family that is characteristic of most children. Replies to a written questionnaire by 60
foster parents suggested that foster children may obtain more from relationships with
companion animals than their own children, the parents or the family as a whole (Hutton,
1985). According to parents’ ratings, the foster children showed particular benefits in the
areas of improved relationships, feeling at ease with people, breaking down social
barriers, communicating, having something to talk about and improved mood. They also
reported that the children appreciated having someone who would listen and not give
away their secrets.
Among the many studies that have explored the therapeutic role of visiting or residential
dogs in nursing home settings, few have investigated the possible social effects on either
staff or patients. One early Australian study reported that patients spent less time alone
following the introduction of a resident dog than previously (Hogarth–Scott, Salmon &
Lavelle, 1983). Ninety-one per cent of patients appreciated that the dog was something to
talk about, and 86% of staff felt that the dog was something they could share with
patients. Another study monitored the proportion of time that both patients and staff
displayed solitary behavior (not engaged in dyadic or group interaction) before and after
a resident dog was introduced to a nursing home (Winkler et al., 1989). The frequency
with which the staff displayed solitary behavior declined after the dog’s arrival, shifting
from about 50% to about 41%. Patients engaged in solitary behavior about 77% of the
time, both before the dog’s arrival and 22 weeks later. The dog became more closely
attached to the staff than to the patients, and this coincided with the staff increasing their
dyadic interactions with other staff.
Savishinsky (1986) investigated the content of conversations among elderly patients
during pet visitation to three geriatric facilities. Animals enhanced the level of
conversation among certain residents. Stories of pet loss were commonly recounted and
frequent reminiscing was related to the presence of animals. The human and animal visits
were said to produce a family atmosphere, momentarily recreating a family. Each of
these facilities introduced their own permanent resident animals soon after initiation of
the visiting programs.
In recognition of the dog’s ability to enhance communication, Lapp (1991) has proposed
that dogs be used to bridge the communication gap between young, middle-class student
nurses and vulnerable older adults. The strategy of including a dog within the therapeutic
milieu might also improve the inferior medical treatment often given to elderly patients
(Green, 1981; Greene et al., 1986).
Although animals cannot supplant relationships with other people, they can help to
relieve the isolation and partially normalize the social lives of lonely people. A study of
elderly women who were living alone or with other persons, some with and some without
a pet, found that pets only made a difference for those living alone (Goldmeier, 1986).
Among women who lived alone, those with pets were significantly more optimistic, less
agitated and less lonely and dissatisfied.
Such studies provide abundant evidence that dogs serve as social companions, as well as
easing human social interactions by providing a topic of relaxed and entertaining
conversation. Since social contact is the mechanism for nurturing self-esteem in people,
the socializing effects of dog companionship are among the most important indirect
benefits for people.
Physical and psychological benefits of canine
People often mention that they feel a sense of calmness and security around their pets
(Katcher, 1985). Those who are seriously ill may report that animals distract them from
worry or pain (McCulloch, 1983). In addition to these somewhat commonplace
observations regarding animals’ contributions to human health, scientists have over the
past decade conducted formal studies into the psychological, physiological and
therapeutic impact of relationships with dogs.
Dogs can provide significant companionship for children as well as for adults. They
respond to demands and offer uncritical sympathy; they may serve as transitional objects
and sources of security for a young child venturing away from the mother. Children
commonly use their pets for comfort when they are feeling bored, lonely or unhappy
(Kidd & Kidd, 1985). Disturbed children seem to rely especially heavily on animals as a
source of support. In one study, delinquent adolescents were found to be twice as likely
to talk to their pets and three times as likely to seek out their pet’s company when lonely
or bored (Robin et al., 1983).
In a study of 213 children with pets and 44 lacking pets, a major benefit of pet ownership
that emerged was mutuality; a term that refers to ‘involvement with another’, ‘needing
social support’, and ‘needing to care about other people or living things’ (Bryant, 1990).
Involvement with dogs, cats or rodents was found to generate greater mutuality than
involvement with fish. The exclusivity of the relationship with a pet was also the subject
of positive comment by children. The disadvantages of pet-keeping mentioned by the
children revolved around empathic concerns regarding the pet’s death, welfare, needs and
care. Overall, dogs were the favorite of 51% of children, while cats were the favorite of
The fact that children reveal their emphatic concerns for pets supports the notion that
children may sometimes learn how to care for others from their experiences with animals
(see Melson, 1990). Some evidence suggests that children who lack younger siblings may
compensate, in effect, by spending more time with animals. Children who lack younger
siblings seem to perceive their pets with more positive affect (Bryant, 1986; Paul &
Serpell, 1992) and children with pets appear to be better informed about how adult
animals care for their young than do non-pet owners (Melson & Fogel, 1989). When
Melson (1988) interviewed mothers of young school children, she found that children
without younger siblings played more with their pets. Evidence that children adjust their
involvement with animals according to their family structure was also found in a French
study. Children without siblings showed more frequent and longer interactions with a dog
than children with siblings (Filiatre, Millot & Montagner, 1985, 1986).
In a study of kindergarten and day-care children, Nielsen & Delude (1989) used a variety
of animals to capture children’s attention including a tarantula, a cockatiel, two breeds of
rabbits, two breeds of dog and various toy animals. Only the dogs elicited displays of
intimacy, however, with 21% of the children hugging or kissing them, three times as
much by boys as by girls.
When dogs confer enthusiastic affection on someone, that person is likely to feel
accepted and viewed as a good person by the dog. In a study of twenty-two 10–12-year-
olds, 65% of the children believed that the dog thought the child was a wonderful person
(Davis, 1987b). This positive reflected appraisal provided by the dog would tend to
support the development of a stronger and more positive self concept. Especially for
adolescents, a clear and consistent message from another that they matter helps them
infer that they are significant (Rosenberg & McCullough, 1981).
Therapists find that emotionally disturbed children or adults who have been hurt in their
relationships with people relate more easily to animals (Levinson, 1969). If the disturbed
person opens up to an animal that is associated with a therapist, the animal may provide
acceptance for the therapist, making it possible to establish a connection much sooner
(Lapp, 1991). In a study of rejected, neglected or abused children in foster care, it was
found that children deficient in reality testing, self-control and empathy, could, in the
presence of a dog, quickly realize that they were having an effect on the outside world.
The mere presence of dogs was often sufficient to ‘elicit laughter, lively conversation,
and excitement among even the most hostile and withdrawn of the children’ (Gonski,
For both children and elderly adults, the opportunity to care for an animal may have value
in giving the person an experience of mattering to another. Melson’s (1988) study of
preadolescent children found a substantial correlation between caretaking and emotional
involvement. Another study reported that elderly pet owners described themselves with a
higher number of positive adjectives than did non-owners (Kidd & Feldmann, 1981). Pet
owners also scored higher on a nurturance scale, indicative of their helpfulness and
general benevolence toward others. Evidence of higher morale among pet owners was
also found in a study of 37 people receiving medical care through the US Veterans
Administration (Robb, 1983), although a higher proportion of pet owners than non-
owners refused to participate in the study.
During interviews with 11 persons suffering from AIDS concerning the benefits they
derive from their animals, Carmack (1991a) found that the animal made it possible for a
person to focus on the here and now and be more distracted from their illness. In a study
of nursing home patients with Alzheimer’s disease, more than 25% of the patients
showed some behavioral improvements during twice-weekly visits from trained dogs and
their volunteer handlers (Schultz, 1987). In an eight-week study at a psychiatric facility
where puppies and handlers made weekly visits, Francis (1985) reported improvements in
measures of patient’s social interaction, psychosocial function, life satisfaction, mental
function, depression, social competence and psychologic well-being. Dogs may also have
particular value in assuring people that they are secure from harm. People frequently
obtain a dog to serve as a watchdog, and a recent prospective study of new cat and dog
owners found that, among dog owners, a lasting and statistically significant reduction
occurred in fear of crime (Serpell, 1990).
Several studies have now documented the immediate physiological effects on humans of
canine companionship (see reviews in Baun, Oetting & Bergstrom, 1991; Friedmann,
1990). While the effect of the presence of a dog on cardiovascular function is possibly the
most extensively studied aspect of human–animal interactions, the findings are difficult
to interpret and there is no evidence that, say, petting a dog induces beneficial health
effects over the long-term. What has been demonstrated in several studies is a reduction
in blood pressure for normotensive or hypertensive persons when they pet a dog, with a
stronger effect for hypertensive individuals (Katcher et al., 1983). Children were found to
show a drop in blood pressure when a dog simply entered the room (Friedmann et al.,
1983). In another study pet owners who had suffered a heart attack were found to show
improved survivorship after one year, as compared with persons who also had suffered an
attack but did not have a pet (Friedmann et al., 1980). This finding, however, has not
Touch may play a major role in the lowering of blood pressure while petting a dog (see
Vormbrock & Grossberg, 1988). Interestingly the feeling of calmness associated with
petting or being with a dog may also be experienced by the dog. A dog’s heart rate drops
when it is being petted by a person (Lynch & McCarthy, 1969), and monkeys have been
reported to show a drop in both heart rate and blood pressure when sitting in close
proximity to each other (Manuck, 1987).
Physical and general health
When eight walkers were instructed to take identical walks both with and without their
dogs, their walks were found to be slightly but significantly longer when the dog was
present (Messent, 1983). Dramatic increases in walking were also found among new dog
owners in England in a prospective study of dog and cat adoption (Serpell, 1991),
providing strong support for the view that dogs can benefit owners by increasing the
amount of exercise they take. Serpell’s study also found that dog owners developed a
heightened sense of security and self-esteem, and improvements in general health that
continued through ten months following adoption.
Further evidence for effects on general health was reported in a United States study of
938 Medicare enrollees, where pet owners reported fewer doctor contacts during a one
year period than non-owners (Siegel, 1990). Stressful life events were not related to
doctor visits among respondents with pets, whereas they were related among non-owners.
Significantly this finding only held true for owners when the different types of pets were
considered separately. Dog owners spent more time outdoors with their pets, more time
talking to their pets and more time overall with their pets than other people they knew.
They felt more attached to their pets, and the positive aspects of pet ownership more
strongly outweighed the negative ones than for owners of other pets. Dog owners were
more likely to mention that their pets made them feel secure and provided entertainment.
Dogs as therapists
In animal-assisted therapy, dogs and other animals are made available to people as a form
of therapeutic intervention. The practice of taking visiting animals into nursing homes is
perhaps the best known example, although this type of therapy has been offered to
various groups of people with special needs. Methodological problems are inherent in
most studies of the benefits of animal-assisted therapy and frequently the orientation of
the earlier studies was biased toward obtaining positive results (Beck & Katcher, 1984).
Situations such as these, where both animals and their handlers visit an institutional
environment together and where patients may have severe medical or mental problems,
present a particular challenge to the scientific investigator.
Generally, studies have not investigated systematically whether the observed effects of
animal-assisted therapy are due to the animal, its handler or simply to novelty. To explore
this question, Hendy (1987) compared the behavior of nursing home residents under four
different visiting conditions; no visit, human visitors, dog visitors, and human and dog
visitors. Each of the three visiting programs were equally effective at increasing alertness
and smiling for many nursing home residents, whereas the group with no visit did not
show an improvement. Visiting with a dog may, however, be more rewarding for the
visitor, given the social lubricant effect of the animal.
Recent studies of special populations have sought to identify and assess possible
therapeutic effects of animal-assisted therapy. In a study of autistic children, where a
therapist was accompanied by a dog during 18 therapy sessions, isolation behavior by the
children declined sharply during the sessions (compared with presession measures), and
assumed an intermediate level during follow-up observations a month after treatment
concluded (Redefer & Goodman, 1989). The occurrence of social interactions increased
several fold during therapy, but declined again to an intermediate level in the follow-up.
Dogs as buffers against grief and stress
Systematic studies of the health effects of animals, especially dogs, have often focused on
vulnerable individuals. Among the most vulnerable adults are those who have recently
lost a spouse. In one study of bereaved elderly persons with extremely few confidants, pet
ownership and strong attachment to the pet were associated with significantly less
depression (Garrity et al., 1989).
In another study of recently widowed women, Bolin (1987) found that nonpet owners
reported a deterioration in health after loss of a spouse, whereas dog owners reported no
such deterioration, as long as their health was good to begin with. Non-owners rated their
health as good before the death and poor afterwards, and expressed despair, social
isolation and death anxiety. Five of the 34 dog owners reported that the dog was a greater
source of comfort than relatives and friends, and 15 described the dog as somewhat
important. If the dog were to die, 19 of the women said they would be extremely upset,
15 would be somewhat upset and no one anticipated being not very upset. In another
study of widows it was found that non-owners of pets reported more symptoms,
especially those with psychogenic components, and higher drug use, compared with pet
owners (Akiyama, Holtzman & Britz, 1986–87).
People who enjoy close relationships with their dogs appear to be buffered against many
of the vicissitudes of life. Increasing documentation shows that stresses have less impact
and that general health is more stable for dog owners than non-owners. Additionally, the
dog facilitates its owner exercising regularly and thus supports physical conditioning.
Problems resulting from dog ownership
While dogs capture human hearts with their unfailing affection and attention, they also
present society with some challenging problems. Many owners apparently are unprepared
for the investment of time and money that dog ownership requires (Case, 1987).
Zoonoses, behavior problems, street sanitation and a seeming oversupply, at least of
certain dogs, are among the problems that can be minimized through education and other
efforts by local communities.
People thinking of acquiring a dog can improve the likelihood of a successful partnership
with their animal if they carefully consider beforehand how well the dog will match their
lifestyle. Making an effort to identify a suitable breed, and then exploring the background
of the prospective dog, can increase the probability of a compatible relationship (see e.g.
Hart, Chapter 5). Not surprisingly, owners who receive a dog as a gift tend to mention
more problems than other owners, and they are less likely to seek a replacement dog if
their present one were to die (Salmon & Salmon, 1983). People who receive a dog as a
gift may develop less of an attachment to it than people who have made a conscious
personal decision to acquire a dog.
Attachment of adults to animals, and the likelihood that people may keep pets as adults
seems to be influenced by childhood experience. In a survey of 120 adults, contact with
pet animals during childhood was shown to be significantly associated with the tendency
to keep pets, usually of the same species, as an adult (Serpell, 1981). People who had
kept pets in childhood were more likely to consider getting a pet, or to already have one,
and current pet owners tended to keep the same type of animal as they had during
childhood. Studies in Germany also found that pet ownership during childhood influences
choices regarding pet ownership in adulthood (Bergler, 1988). Previous experience of pet
keeping should therefore be an important consideration during the process of pet
Canine behavior problems
Behavior problems with dogs, such as disobedience, aggression and separation anxiety,
can inject sufficient conflict into the relationship that it becomes intolerable for the
human and ultimately outweighs any benefits that are being sought. Aggression accounts
for the majority of canine behavior problem cases presented at clinics in the United States
and Britain (see Mugford, 1981, 1985; Houpt, 1983; Hart & Hart, 1985). In one United
States study, the incidence of aggression was considerably higher among male than
female dogs (Houpt, 1983), and an English study reported that intact males were
significantly over-represented for all types of behavior problem (Mugford, 1981).
Aggression directed toward both owners and strangers was sometimes severe and
unpredictable enough to warrant recommending euthanasia. Establishing a social
convention of routinely castrating male dogs might be expected to reduce the number of
dangerous behavior problems in dogs (but see also Lockwood, Chapter 9).
Little is known regarding how environmental factors may influence the prevalence of
behavior problems in dogs, although owner attitudes and behavior are likely to be
important (see e.g. O’Farrell, 1986 and Chapter 11). In a survey of 308 dog-owning
households in Melbourne, Australia, it was found that in 35% of household no one
disciplined the dog (Salmon & Salmon, 1983), and in an open-ended question about the
responsibilities of owning a dog, only 2% specifically mentioned training the dog as a
responsibility. Dog owners were also poorly informed about the laws concerning pets.
Forty-six per cent did not know that their municipality had a law against dogs chasing
people, and 32% were unaware of the law against dogs roaming unattended.
Canine behavior problems can also affect an owner’s ability to travel and socialize with
friends. When the owner loses dominance over the dog, or places the dog in the center of
the social network, this may influence the owner’s other activities within the community
(Miller & Lago, 1990). Reducing travel and severing relationships with friends who did
not like the dog are compromises that are exacerbated when a dog develops behavior
problems (Catanzaro, 1984).
Zoonoses, allergies and bites
The most serious dog-related hazard is bites. Most animal bites go unreported (Beck &
Jones, 1985; see also Lockwood, Chapter 9), yet approximately 1% of all United States
emergency room visits are caused by animal bites (Weber et al., 1984). Dogs are
responsible for a large majority of the bites that require medical attention, and zoonotic
infection may occur in 5–15% of bites (Chretien & Garagusi, 1990; Schantz, 1990). The
victim’s own dog or a neighbor’s dog is responsible for 80% of the dog bites (Moss &
Wright, 1987). Letter carriers who own dogs are more likely to get bitten than those
without dogs, suggesting that dog owners become less cautious of dogs in general and are
more likely to approach strange ones (Lockwood & Beck, 1975). Surprisingly, previous
experience of being bitten by a dog was found in one study to be no more frequent among
fearful than non-fearful adults (DiNardo et al., 1988). Presumably, most dog bites are
avoidable and, in many cases of serious attacks, owners fail to take appropriate steps to
prevent the dog becoming a problem (Lockwood & Rindy, 1987).
People generally are poorly informed about the health hazards associated with keeping
animals, although those who visit veterinarians are better informed than others (Fontaine
& Schantz, 1989). The unwitting new pet owner may have no idea that a puppy from a
pet store, for instance, is likely to be carrying intestinal parasites that can also affect
humans (Stehr-Green et al., 1987). For all zoonoses, children suffer a higher risk because
of their closer physical contact with animals. Developing comprehensive infection
control for pets, pet policies and surveillance plans are ways to reduce zoonoses, as well
as being more careful in pet selection and taking precautions for individuals who are
allergic. Some of these methods are being refined by programs that advise and assist
immuno-compromised persons with their pets (Gorczyka, 1990).
Potential risks of zoonoses and allergies from exposure to animals pose a particular
concern when animals are brought into institutional facilities for therapeutic purposes.
One study of staff attitudes at a nursing home before and after pet visits found that staff
were favorably disposed toward the program and that concerns about health risks
declined after their experience with the program (Kranz & Schaaf, 1989). Guidelines for
screening animals and managing visitation have been prepared that set forth procedures
for conducting such programs responsibly (Lee et al., 1985). Apparently, when these
precautions are implemented, visitation programs encounter only occasional problems
(Stryler-Gordon, Beall & Anderson, 1985).
Problems for dogs
Between five and ten million dogs are euthanized each year in the United States, leading
to a current focus on what is termed the problem of pet overpopulation (Nassar & Fluke,
1988). Many newly adopted dogs are quickly discarded. One study concluded that nearly
64% of all dogs obtained as puppies in the United States are disposed of by their owners
within a year of acquisition (Arkow & Dow, 1984). Typical stated reasons for getting rid
of dogs were lifestyle changes and behavioral problems. Another study reported that 20%
of surrendered dogs had behavior problems (described by Rowan & Williams, 1987),
while another study reported a figure of 26% (Arkow, 1985). Of these, 59% of the
owners said they would keep the dog if the problem could be resolved.
Perhaps even more disturbing are cases where dogs are neglected or actively abused (see
also Hubrecht, Chapter 13). Frequently a pattern of abuse occurs within families where
both the children and animals are abused (DeViney, Dickert & Lockwood, 1983). The
possibility of veterinarians and pediatricians alerting each other to situations where abuse
appears likely could perhaps prevent some suffering of both children and animals,
although effective and confidential methods for administering such procedures are yet to
As children grow up and leave home and their parents age, the family home is often
scaled down to an apartment. Privately-owned apartments in the United States commonly
prohibit pets so people making a move to an apartment often face the prospect of parting
with their animals, even though one study of elderly pet owners in apartments found that
pets did not cause problems (Hart & Mader, 1986). Many people also fail to acquire pets
because of housing limitations (Catanzaro, 1984). Declining health, advancing age and
less spacious living arrangements all have been identified in a longitudinal study of 316
elderly as factors that made it more difficult to own a pet (Lago et al., 1985). The
convention of not allowing pets in apartments strikes harshly at individuals who live
alone and who might be expected to welcome and benefit particularly from animal
companionship. Support of pet owners by the community can also be improved by
developing more accessible exercise areas for dogs. Some communities also have
volunteer programs that provide foster care for pets when their owners are ill.
When discussing the death of a pet dog, people frequently express a profound degree of
mutual interdependence with their canine companion. The following example is typical:
. . . Kojak and I lived alone together, and in our younger days he went to work with me at
the Pillar Point Air Force Tracking Station, where I was a Security Guard, until I became
disabled with Parkinson’s disease. Then we both stayed home to grow old together.
Kojak was 15 years, 7 months and 14 days old and had been well until his last year, 1989.
Then he went downhill, despite weekly check-ups with Dr Smith, and with my own
disability it was becoming increasingly difficult for me to take proper care of him. . . . I
was in the room with him for the euthanasia. I said goodbye to my good and loyal friend,
told him to be a good dog where he was going and to wait for me, that I would be along
in time to join him. . . . The Pedro Point staff technician baked me a banana loaf bread
and the entire staff chipped in and bought me a huge basket of goodies from the Hickory
Farms store. The sympathy cards and letters poured in. It is true that Kojak had a good
life, and a long one for a Samoyed, but a glance at our picture will convey the closeness
that has made separation so difficult, particularly since my age and disability and
financially meager means make me hesitate to replace my dog. J. Corson, personal
It is often not appreciated that a companion dog may participate in family life for many
years. Table 12.1 presents the median ages of dogs at time of death for pet owners who
contacted the Pet Loss Support Hotline at the University of California, Davis (see Mader
& Hart, 1992), and as indicated in the records of four veterinary hospitals and one pet
cemetery. The overall median age of death was 13 years for all dogs and there were no
significant differences among the different facilities. In contrast, dogs delivered to animal
shelters by their owners average less than two years old (see Arkow & Dow, 1984).
When a dog dies after providing more than ten years of consistent companionship and
sharing in daily and landmark life events, the human companion inevitably experiences a
profound loss that is unwelcome and perhaps surprising in its intensity. As in any
relationship, the person becoming attached to another assumes a vulnerability to the
possible loss. The person’s role in deciding in favor of euthanasia may also exacerbate
feelings of guilt and grief. Given the shorter lifespan of dogs such losses are likely to
occur several times within a dog owner’s lifetime. The pain of such losses cannot be
circumvented, but support is available to offer choices to grieving people and to ease
their pain (Hart, Hart & Mader, 1990). Drawing on resources such as pet loss support
groups or hotlines, and seeking support from friends and relatives, can lessen the impact
of painful events involving the loss of a beloved companion animal.
Fig. 12.8. J. Corson and Kojak while they were in good health. Photograph: David
Table 12.1. Ages of dogs at time of death. Callers to the hotline were similar to clients of
veterinary clinics and a pet cemetery in having relationships of many years with their
dogs. No significant difference was found among these different facilities. In contrast,
dogs delivered to animal shelters averaged less than two years old
Dogs’ ages in years
Pet loss support hotline
An animal’s role often assumes more importance in a smaller family. Quackenbush
(1981) reported a correlation between dependency upon an animal and living alone. He
also observed an apparent exacerbation of grief when an animal had been in the family
for many years (cited in Beck, 1984). The percentage of owners seeking assistance from a
veterinary hospital social worker increased with the dog’s age. Among owners of dogs
under six years of age, only 3.4% visited the social worker, whereas with older dogs the
rate was at least 26.9% of owners. As in human relationships, attachment to an animal
appears to enrich and deepen over time. Persons whose pets have served as a major
source of affection, intimacy, companionship, and nurturance are especially vulnerable to
grief when the animal dies (Carmack, 1991b). Among elderly people who have come to
be overly dependent on a special relationship with an animal, often as a substitute for a
human relationship, the grief may be further intensified.
Outstanding bibliographic assistance was provided by Sara Christensen and Jena
Meyerstein. James Serpell, an anonymous reviewer and Kathy Berchin offered helpful
editorial suggestions. A contribution from Kal Kan Pet Foods provided support toward
the preparation of this paper. Dr Bruce Cammack, Dr James Harris, Dr Tom Kendall, Dr
Paul Palmatier, the Adobe Animal Hospital and the Sacramento Pet Cemetery generously
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