- Our interpersonal relationships are the quality of our lives; after a global pandemic forcing isolation, pets count now more than ever.
- Pets provide the non-complex, simple love, availability, and presence we live for.
- Pets aren't cognitively complex; they have their own minds but mainly live to connect and be present with us.
- Our obsession with pets reveals what we want most from human relationships: connection, attunement, and presence.
"We are born in relationships, wounded in relationships, and heal in relationships." — Harville Hendrix
When we tell our troubles and stressors to other humans, they usually start problem-solving when what we need most when is connection, understanding, and empathy. Most pets, especially most dogs, are not only naturally perfect at this but also genetically wired to provide this for us.
If you're reading this, the odds are you know how special it is to get home to a pet that had been waiting for you, literally all day. Our obsession with pets, I believe, reveals what we really want from human relationships; to feel deeply understood, valued, loved, important, and special unconditionally.
A Potent Solution for Psychological Trauma
As a psychology and trauma doctor, many ask me what is the most common and damaging aspect of trauma. The research to date reveals the answer to be relational ruptures such as loss, abandonment, abuse, and grief. Relationships are at the root of mental health in every way. This is also largely why isolation can be so harmful; spending too much time alone (a little to moderate is OK, of course: I hear you, introverts!) and self-soothing are not natural for humans.
One of the most salient findings from the PTSD literature is that social support is the most powerful factor in recovery. Humans have always connected with certain animals, especially dogs. Pets can thus be an antidote to the most significant source of human suffering; loneliness, meaninglessness, and loss, as long as we don't overly depend on our pets and isolate from other humans.
1. Pets attend potently to our brain's social circuitry.
Our brains are hardwired with social circuitry that privileges our fundamental need for close attachments/relationships. They are imprinted in our survival code. We are innately interdependent before we are independent. This is evident from birth; as babies, we depend on our attachment figures to meet our basic needs. Isolation is not our natural state and is innately traumatizing.
To further underscore the importance of humans’ interdependent nature, most (not all) child developmental delays come from not getting their needs met by their caregivers and environment. These relationships do not necessarily have to be human. Pets may pick up the slack when other humans aren't able to for many sufferers (Daddow, 2022).
Recent research found that pet owners were significantly less depressed than non-pet owners during the COVID-19 pandemic (Martin et al., 2021). Individuals and families with dogs reported more positivity, less isolation, and more social support.
This isn't surprising; in the words of attachment and relationship pioneer John Bowlby, "I regard the desire to be loved and cared for as being an integral part of human nature throughout life as well as earlier and that the expression of such desires is to be expected in every person, especially in times of sickness and calamity" (Bowlby, 1979, p. 184).
This makes intuitive sense. Our capacity for self-regulation, confidence, success, and self-comfort is ultimately a function of the strength of our attachment bonds with others. Being treated like we're special and important, which pets do wonderfully, helps build our self-esteem (Yes, the most important self-esteem driver is being treated like we matter!). Pets are optimal here because their main existence is geared toward connecting with us, reading our mental states and feelings, being available for us, loving us, and showing up emotionally for us (many pet owners know the ultimate comfort of them licking your tears away!).
2. Pets are pure.
Yes, pets may pee on the rug to show you their pain of missing you at times. However, pets don't have ulterior motives. They won't try to get something from you (besides love, attention, play, time outside, or food) or gaslight you. They won't ever abandon you to go to their friend's party instead of spending time with you. They won't pursue an affair; you're everything to them, and they're fiercely, unwaveringly loyal, as long as you treat them decently (and often even if you don't: but please treat them well anyway, they deserve it!).
There aren't too many experiences more corrective and therapeutic than feeling valued, loved, important, and special. In fact, for traumatized individuals, experiencing these emotions can actually help survivors have healthier relationships with other humans later on, as long as they don't overly depend on their pets and isolate from other humans, as mentioned.
3. Pets only know and breathe connection.
Although most mental health professionals aren't suitably trained to provide emotional support animal (ESA) letters for clients when they need them for air travel or housing, for example, perhaps we should learn to. Perhaps mental health graduate programs should offer more training on how pets can help with certain mental health challenges like trauma and depression.
Pets understand us non-verbally. They're in sync with us emotionally and aren't distracted by the words and other complexities or nuances in human relationships. If relating is a dance, the music is emotion (Johnson, 2019). For example, they won't argue with us about politics or which side you're on regarding the Neil Young, Joe Rogan, and Spotify debacle; they just love us no matter what's happening. We bond with pets and each other through emotion.
Brene Brown, Sue Johnson, and Les Greenberg, among other emotion and relationship scientists, have made it absolutely clear: humans are much more emotional than we are cognitive, and pets get us and use this to connect deeply with us. We want the same from our human relationships. I'm always fascinated and encouraged by how pets help, heal, and love humans in my personal and professional life. It looks like they do it better than most humans! For busy families, lonely people, and those with mental health challenges, loving pets, like most dogs among others, may be a crucial missing puzzle piece.
Note: Dr. Linder doesn't specialize in pet psychology or pet therapy; these are merely his insights and perspectives as a doctor of psychology, trauma and relationship specialist and scientist, and a practicing therapist of 11 years. He also doesn't have a pet but thoroughly enjoys others' pets, when possible.
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Bowlby, J. (1979). On knowing what you are not supposed to know and feeling what you are not supposed to feel. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 24(5). 403-408.
Daddow, K. A. (2022). Pets Impact on Perceived Social Support: an Attachment Perspective (Doctoral dissertation, Alliant International University).
Johnson, S. M. (2019). Attachment theory in practice: Emotionally focused therapy (EFT) with individuals, couples, and families. Guilford Publications.
Martin, F., Bachert, K. E., Snow, L., Tu, H. W., Belahbib, J., & Lyn, S. A. (2021). Depression, anxiety, and happiness in dog owners and potential dog owners during the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States. PloS one, 16(12), e0260676.