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Can Confiding in Your Dog Improve Your Mental Health?

New data reveal which of us benefit from a nonjudgmental animal's ear, and why.

Susan Schmitz/Shutterstock
Source: Susan Schmitz/Shutterstock

Confiding in a dog may help you deal with stress and other psychological problems. One of the foundations of psychoanalysis, originally articulated by Sigmund Freud, is the idea that talking about your current emotional states and problems has a therapeutic effect. This idea has been adopted by many of the psychotherapeutic systems that followed the introduction of psychoanalysis. While some of us have family members who are understanding and trusted enough to confide in when we have emotional trouble, others can have difficulty finding someone other than a trained therapist.

Yet proponents of animal-assisted therapy suggest that your confidant in times of stress does not have to be human, and that a dog could serve the same function as a therapist or sympathetic family member if you are willing to talk to it.

I recently came across two studies which suggest that we do tend to talk to our dogs when we are emotionally stressed, and that we may actually prefer to confide in our dogs rather than humans who may be family members.

One study comes from Matthew Cassels who is working on a Ph.D. at Cambridge University. (His data has just recently been submitted to a scientific journal for review.) He began to analyze some of the data from a 10-year longitudinal study of children's social and emotional development, led by Professor Claire Hughes at the Center for Family Research. Cassels looked at data from 12-year-old children and found that children who suffered from stressful events in their lives, such as bereavement, divorce, instability, and illness, and children from disadvantaged backgrounds, were more likely to have stronger relationships with their dogs or other pets than with their peers.

Part of this includes sharing their feelings with their dogs. There seems to be something positive and therapeutic coming out of the relationship between these children and their dogs, because kids who have stronger relationships with their pets also demonstrate a higher level of socially desirable behaviors, such as helping, sharing, and cooperating. The study also demonstrated that these children, particularly girls, were more likely to confide in pets than in brothers and sisters.

Cassels commented:

"It is really surprising that these children not only turned to their pets for support when faced with adversity, but that they do so even more than they turn to their siblings. This is even though they know that their pets don't actually understand what they are saying."

At the same time I came across the study by Cassels, I received a Masters thesis by Aislinn Evans-Wilday at the University of Lincoln in the United Kingdom. This is an ambitious piece of research with a number of components; the part of the study I found most interesting looked at adults' relationship to their dogs. This study determined whether people chose to confide and discuss emotional concerns with their dogs rather than their partners, and looked at the specific emotional issues people were willing to talk to their dogs about. Here the data were based on an online survey that involved 306 heterosexual adults (232 women and 74 men).

The survey targeted eight different emotions. One interesting finding was that the data confirmed the sex difference that Cassels found: Female participants in this study were much more likely to talk about their emotional state in general. In addition, in whom they were most likely to confide depended upon which specific emotions were affecting them at the moment. In general, women were more willing to confide in a pet about feelings of depression, jealousy, calmness, and apathy. However, when it came to feelings of anger and fear, the women were more likely to turn to their male partner. Men were less likely to discuss their emotional state in general, and were not selective about which emotions they discussed with their partner and which they discussed with their dog.

Luigi Anzivino photo; Creative Commons License
Source: Luigi Anzivino photo; Creative Commons License

The data from these studies seem to reach similar conclusions: When adults and children experience negative emotions, they tend to seek comfort by confiding in their dog, and this effect seems to be stronger for females than for males.

If Freud was correct, and simply talking about your emotional state makes you feel better, this suggests that having a dog to talk to might provide an initial opportunity to begin the psychological healing process in times of adversity.

Stanley Coren is the author of books including Gods, Ghosts and Black Dogs; The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; and The Left-hander Syndrome

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