How people emotionally connect with their pets

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How people emotionally connect with their pets
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By Kim Gilliam

Pet owners know they usually become emotionally dependent on their four-legged friends. Dogs have always been considered man’s best friend, but nowadays, it goes beyond that. Studies prove that pets are instrumental in their owners’ social lives, work lives and overall well-being.

A poll by Good News Network found that out of the 2,000 dog owners surveyed, nearly half had made friends while walking their dogs. In fact, respondents said they have met an average of four new people though their pets, with 54 percent of dog owners saying that having a pet has boosted their confidence and made it easier for them to talk to strangers.

“People and dogs share a need for social connection and find this in their relationship with one another,” Phil Tedeschi, executive director of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection at the University of Denver, said. “This serves a very important interpersonal neurobiological dimension of the sense of well-being.”

Owners have long recognized that dogs are tuned into their feelings, but recently, studies have proven why. It’s been shown that dogs pay close attention to human faces and react strongly to happy and angry facial expressions. In fact, MRI brain scans show that dogs have an area of the brain dedicated to processing human facial cues. In return, dogs communicate with humans using their own facial expressions, producing more facial expressions when a human is watching. 

Psychology Today dug into the connection between dogs and owners further by studying the stress hormone cortisol, which is stored in hair. The study found that the stress levels in a dog’s hair shaft essentially matched the owner’s stress levels. The link between dog and human cortisol levels was higher in winter, when they share closer quarters, than in summer. The link was also greater in competition dogs and their owners, likely due to a stronger bond.

The study’s principal author wrote, “We found no major effect of the dog’s personality on long-term stress; the personality of the owner, on the other hand, had a strong effect. This has led us to suggest that the dog mirrors its owner’s stress.”

According to a poll sponsored by AARP and Michigan Medicine, 90 percent of people said having a dog helped them enjoy life and feel loved, while 80 percent claimed their pets helped them de-stress.

“Increased beta-endorphin, oxytocin and dopamine, among other health targets — in both humans and their dogs during time shared — show that time spent together is physiologically and psychologically beneficial for both species,” Tedeschi said.

Additional research has proven that pets in the workplace can lead to improving overall office psychological health.

Research from Virginia Commonwealth University shows that people experience less stress when a dog is around. Researchers took saliva samples from factory employees and found that only the employees who had had a dog in their vicinity had low cortisol levels by the end of the day.

In addition, Marie-José Enders of Open University found that people with dogs are perceived as friendlier, so having an office pet could help improve work relationships as well.

“A dog can make it easier to put certain situations into perspective; you can just take a bit of space and walk the dog,” said Enders.

According to behavioral psychologist Lotte Spijkerman, office dogs and cats have roughly the same psychological effect on people.

“They reduce stress and increase productivity, mainly because they interact with you of their own accord and, when they pop over to your work station, it’s a good reminder that you might need to take a break.”

These effects diminish when you have an office hamster or fish, but still exist.

So what should you do with this information? Maybe you should lobby for your office to adopt a pet. Or work to institute a “take your pet to work” day. What better place to try than in the animal-loving city of Alexandria?

The writer co-owns Frolick Dogs, an indoor dog gym in Alexandria, with her husband, Kevin Gilliam.

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