Wayne Pacelle has a demanding job as president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States. This is one of the reasons he brings Lily, his beagle mix, to work with him. He is convinced that animals "are a necessary ingredient in our emotional well-being,'' he says. "I deal with many stressful issues, and I see terrible cruelty,'' he adds. "But when Lily puts her head on my lap, it calms me.''
Pacelle can't scientifically document the positive effects he gains from his connection with Lily (and Zoe, his cat.) But his experience supports what researchers who study human/animal interaction have concluded: Pets, especially dogs, seem to be good for our health.
"Dogs make people feel good,'' says Brian Hare, an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University, who points out that dogs are found now in some courtrooms, exam study halls, hospitals, nursing homes, hospice-care settings, classrooms, airports and elsewhere, "and their only job is to help people in stressful situations feel better. Many people seem to respond to dogs in a positive way.''
Scientists believe that the major source of people's positive reactions to pets comes from oxytocin, a hormone whose many functions include stimulating social bonding, relaxation and trust, and easing stress.
Research has shown that when humans interact with dogs, oxytocin levels increase in both species. "When parents look at their baby and their baby stares into their eyes, even though the baby can't talk, parents get an oxytocin boost just by eye contact,'' Hare says. "Dogs have somehow hijacked this oxytocin bonding pathway, so that just by making eye contact, or [by] playing and hugging our dog, the oxytocin in both us and our dog goes up. This is why dogs are wonderful in any kind of stressful situation.''
Miho Nagasawa, a postdoctoral fellow at Jichi Medical University in Shimotsuke, Japan, has found that mutual gazing between humans and their dogs increases the owners' oxytocin levels. This helps decrease anxiety and arousal levels, and slow the heart rate. "The positive interaction between humans and dogs via mutual gazing may reduce stress activity for each other,'' she says.
Lori Kogan, an associate professor of clinical sciences at the Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and the editor of the Human-Animal Interaction Bulletin, says that pets can be especially helpful for people facing emotional difficulties. "Dogs have a positive impact on depression and anxiety,'' Kogan says. "When someone loses a spouse or partner, for example, having a dog provides a reason to get up and be social,'' she says. For many older people, "it's the only relationship they have.''
In one study, researchers concluded that women living alone were "significantly more lonely" than those who were living with pets, and noted that having a pet might "compensate for the absence of human companionship."
This may explain the value many people find in therapy dogs, which are trained to help people deal with worry, unhappiness and anxiety, and have been found to even reduce the perception of pain.
While dogs are most frequently used for therapy purposes, says Mary Margaret Callahan of Pet Partners, the group's registry of available therapy animals also includes cats, horses, rabbits, guinea pigs, llamas, potbellied pigs, birds and domesticated rats.
Therapy dogs are widely used to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and have been used to help calm autistic children. In June, therapy dogs were brought in to relax swimmers competing in the U.S. Olympic trials in Omaha suffering from pre-race jitters.
Therapy golden retrievers from Lutheran Church Charities were sent to Orlando in June to comfort survivors as well as those who lost loved ones in the Pulse nightclub shooting that left dozens dead. A New York funeral home provides mourners with a dog that even "prays'' with them.
A recently released study found that therapy pets can help first-year university students suffering from homesickness and possibly help in lowering college dropout rates.
Of course, there are times when the emotional interaction with pets can be difficult. When they misbehave or are sick (or worse), we feel it.
"Dogs are just like kids: They can be the sources of enormous joy and enormous worry," says Hare, who has two children and two dogs. "But overall, despite the worry and pain, most dog owners I know, including me, would say that there is overwhelming benefit."