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Take Two Collies and Call Me in the Morning

In tense situations, your dog may be a better companion than your spouse.

Man's best friend may also be his best source of social support. Better, even, than a spouse.

We all know that turning to friends and family can buffer the psychological effects of stress. But the ideal source of social support, according to Karen Allen, may be a pet dog.

Allen and her colleagues at the State University of New York at Buffalo subjected 480 animal enthusiasts to a variety of stressful tasks, either on their own, with their mate present, or with the family pooch in the room. The stress tests, of course, sent blood pressure and heart rates soaring—especially, it turned out, when a participant's husband or wife was nearby. Although spouses were free to provide any social support they deemed fit, heart rates and blood pressure were higher than when the subjects endured stress alone.

Stress response was lowest, though, when only Fido was present. Typically, a subject's heart rate was 30 beats per minute slower with canine companionship than with the spousal equivalent.

The reason, Allen believes, is pets are nonevaluative. They may not offer much useful advice, but they don't criticize mistakes, either. And since stress can be caused or exacerbated by our own actions, a nonjudgmental stance is comforting.

Even cynical folks, who often don't profit from social support of the human variety, benefited from canine support. Which is why Allen questions the "no pets" policy of many disaster rescue teams. "If these animals are good for you when you're under stress, how can we expect a person to leave one behind in a hurricane?"