Study sheds light on importance of dogs as social support

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Dogs are struggling with a quiet house

The past year and a half was difficult for everyone, but for Sunita Thind it was especially hard. She credits her dog Ghost for getting her through dark times with his constant support – and she’s not the only one

When the Covid pandemic sent the UK into its first lockdown, Sunita was already battling ovarian cancer. By her side – as well as family, friends and doctors – there was the constant presence of a handsome Samoyed called Ghost. 

Sunita says, “I had ovarian cancer recurrence, and lost both my ovaries. I went through multiple surgeries to get rid of cysts, lost my hair and fertility after going into early menopause – and to top it all off, I caught Covid while undergoing chemotherapy.

“Ghost has been my constant companion, helping me stave off loneliness, isolation and depression. He’s a very gentle, loving boy who wants to be by my side constantly.”

SUnita credits Ghost for giving her support
Sunita with Ghost

“We have such a deep connection, and he is part of my everyday life. I am now getting over Covid-related anxiety and depression; my anxiety gets to its peak before each cancer scan at the hospital, but staying with him and petting him always helps me feel better. If I’m feeling faint, he will come lay down beside me. 

“It didn’t matter to him if I lost my hair or ovaries – he needed me and I needed him. He’s a constant source of love and comfort, and I don’t know what I would do without him. Even my doctor said he is good for my health, both mental and physical; he keeps me going. 

“There are days when no matter how awful you feel, you still don’t want to burden your loved ones with your problems – but he’s still there. There is that presence, that warmth, that touch – it really does help.”

The fact that pet dogs provide a unique form of support will come to no surprise to dog owners, but individual personal experience has little value when it comes to evidence-based approaches on policies. A new paper published on Frontiers in Psychiatry in April 2021 fills that gap, exploring the true extent of social support provided by dogs – both before and after the pandemic.

The Value of Companion Dogs as a Source of Social Support for Their Owners – by Jonathan Bowen, Antonio Bulbena and Jaume Fatjó – details the findings from a pre-pandemic representative sample of Spanish dog owners, as well as from a convenience sample obtained during the Covid-19 lockdown in Spain. 

Speaking to Dogs Today about the findings, Jon Bowen says, “We were really excited about this paper. This was the first time that the extent of social support from dogs has been evaluated using a representative sample population, and the first time such a paper has been accepted into a major psychiatry journal.

“A representative sample is balanced in terms of sex, age groups, education and so forth. So our findings have general implications for the whole of dog-owning society. When we first started this study in 2019, of course we had no idea a pandemic was coming, so it was very lucky that we collected this data when we did.”

The research looked at several different aspects of social support: availability of the source of support, shared activities, self disclosure, physical contact and opportunities for caregiving.

World Spay day

Availability is a vital aspect of the social support provided by dogs: pre-pandemic, over 90 per cent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statements “my dog provides me with constant companionship” and “if everyone left me, my dog would still be there for me”.

In terms of shared activity, over 94 per cent of the sample said they play with their dog every day, or every few days; just over 86 per cent hug their dog just as often (physical contact), and just under 70 per cent tell their dogs things they “don’t tell anyone else” – therefore fulfilling the need of self-disclosure with a confidant. In terms of opportunities for caregiving, over half of the respondents said they give their dogs treats or groom them “at least once a day or once every few days”. The findings from the representative sample population indicate that “the majority of dog owners feel that their dogs help them through tough times”.

Jon says, “We found that the type of support dog owners reported getting from their pets did conform to the known characteristics of social support – availability, shared activity, physical contact and acting as a confidant.”

pet theft tears families apart
Image by Myriams-Fotos on Pixabay

“Many will look at people with dogs and say something along the lines of ‘oh, it’s like your child’ – but that’s not right, it’s something different: it’s a kind of social support and relationship of its own, with its own place in one’s relationships and support network. What we’re interested in looking at is how dogs fit into this network. 

“To make an example, there are things you’d tell your friends but would not tell your parents or children; similarly, there are things you tell your dog you would tell no one else because you don’t need to worry over possibly upsetting them, or stressing them out over problems you know they cannot help you with, or getting blowback. 

“Dogs are not going to reflect back that stress. Of course they cannot answer, or help you solve the problem, but this aspect of the relationship should not be dismissed. Sometimes you’re not seeking a solution, but simply looking to vent, and dogs help immensely. They are there, listen, and think no less of you; that presence alone has value.”

This rings true when it comes to Sunita’s relationship with Ghost. She had other sources of social support to fall back on – her husband, family, friends – but wasn’t always able to confide with them. 

Ghost

“My husband has a high-pressure job, and he’d come home so tired and stressed – you know, sometimes you don’t want to add to that,” she says. “But Ghost was there. I could talk to him, spend time with him, and it always helped – before, during and after lockdown. And of course, he helped my husband feel better, too.”

When the Covid pandemic struck and Spain went into lockdown, Jon saw a chance to collect more data under extraordinary circumstances. 

“We decided to distribute the same questionnaire again to see the scale of social support provided by dogs in the midst of a crisis – the timing was just right for this rather unique opportunity,” Jon said. “We expected people to turn to their pets for social support, and were eager to see any increase in figures for key areas of social support. 

“Due to anonymity, we were unable to have people from our previous sample take the questionnaire again, and we collected data from a convenience sample.”

dogs provide support to victims of domestic violence
Image by Richard Murgatroyd Photography

As predicted, increases were seen in each of the key areas of social support, particularly for shared activity, physical contact and availability – the areas of human social interaction that were most hindered by the spread of the virus and the tight lockdown that followed. Just over 45 percent of respondents also reported that their dogs helped them through tough times “more or much more than before” during lockdown.

Over 50 percent of respondents said their dogs provided “more or much more” companionship than before, and over 48 percent hugged their dogs “more or much more often”. 

“There was only a 21 per cent increase in using dogs as confidants, but this may be due to the fact technology allows us to talk to each other regularly, even if physically far away,” Jon says. “Looking at the responses, we found that the relationship between dog and owner is highly adaptable, and capable of compensating changes in other sources of social support.”

In order to make the most of these benefits, the paper reads “we have two options; firstly to create interventions that take advantage of the presence of a dog in the household, and secondly to identify and minimize perceived costs for the owner so that the dog can be most effective as a social support”.

While pet ownership can be hugely beneficial to one’s well-being, as reported in our July issue this is not always the case: if the pet disrupts one’s life, or has issues the owner is unable to cope or help with, it can actually result in a poorer quality of life.

“I am not saying we should just give everybody a dog and everything would be great, of course”, Jon says. “After all, we are now seeing the consequences of people getting animals on impulse solely to have companionship during lockdown. Not everyone is meant for pet ownership or would benefit from it. 

“However, even before the pandemic there were many people who struggled to afford to keep a pet they already had, and that pet is an immensely important source of emotional support to them. State or local interventions could help people to keep those pets, which might have major public health benefits in terms of mental wellbeing. We focused on dogs, but we have no doubt other pets may be beneficial too.”

elderly support

“Authorities could intervene to support people with pets, or people who might benefit from having a pet, where pet ownership is an option. It’s something well worth looking into.”

Jon is certainly going to keep looking into this: the paper was only the starting point for a bigger project, he says. 

“We treated it as a first step, but this is a major area of research we are moving into. We want to develop a more specific way of understanding the support that animals provide to people, and the nature of it. And I am very, very excited to see what we’ll find.”

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