PU Researcher: Dogs Help Us Cope with Social Isolation

April 30, 2020

WEST LAFAYETTE – As COVID-19 prevents social interaction of the human sort, a Purdue University researcher says companion animals are playing an important role in reducing stress and anxiety. While pet owners may be experiencing a heightened sense of support from Fido, Associate Professor of Human-Animal Interaction Dr. Maggie O’Haire has sniffed out the science behind this feeling of well-being humans can gain from their pets while we’re socially isolated.

“Pets can actually be a unique source of social support during stressful situations; studies have found that people perceive their pets friends as distinctive sources of social support and rate them at similar levels as significant others, family and friends,” says O’Haire. “People who have service dogs, for example, have measurably better social and emotional health; the companionship that animals can provide is something that we can measure scientifically.”

O’Haire co-led a study in 2018 at the Center for the Human-Animal Bond in Purdue’s College of Veterinary Medicine that examined how service dogs impacted their handlers, who have physical disabilities. The study revealed that people with a service dog had better overall psychological and social functioning.

 The study’s co-leader says people with physical disabilities experience social isolation, so relating the positive impact the dog handlers’ experienced to the feel-good emotions of dog owners during social isolation is a valid scientific leap.

“People are always interested in how we measure this biologically or physiologically. It has a lot to do with how animals can help with stress and anxiety,” says O’Haire. “If an animal is present in stressful situations, people show what we might call a muted stress response, so they’re having a lower heartrate or blood pressure, or their cortisol levels—which is a stress hormone—are lower when the animal is there.”

Through various research projects, the Center for the Human-Animal Bond has generated scientific data that’s critical to support the use of service dogs. O’Haire’s lab, in particular, focuses on special populations, such as veterans with PTSD and children with autism.

“We need research for those special populations, because it takes science to allow those things to happen,” says O’Haire. “For example, in hospitals, they don’t just let anyone through the doors; they have to make decisions based on science, and if you can’t scientifically demonstrate that a dog needs to be in a hospital, he’s not going to be allowed in. The same goes for the service animals.”

Dogs’ impact on owners’ psyches during social isolation may lack scientific evidence yet, but there is some social evidence that we’re leaning on our pets during this unprecedented time of social isolation. Indy Humane, for example, says there has been an outpouring of support for its foster program; when the animal shelter issued a plea in response to COVID-19 to find shelter animals temporary homes, more than 200 new families signed up to foster pets.

“There’s something we see in science about physical contact with an animal; petting your animal and having that mindful moment where you’re in the present and have a physical stress relief can be so important in times of stress,” says O’Haire. “Right now while people are feeling isolated, one of the best ways to take advantage of the situation if you do have a companion animal is to cherish that and be mindful about it. Take your dog for a walk, pet your cat, watch the silly things they do and let that bring some joy and humor to your life. I think if we’re mindful about this time, we can create a space that’s really quite positive for the animal and for us.”

O’Haire suspects this unprecedented time in our history will likely inspire researchers to fetch some answers about why our dogs deliver warm, fuzzy feelings when we can’t turn to humans.

“This is definitely creating a space for many researchers to ask new questions about how companion animals can affect stress during big [events] in our world,” says O’Haire. “As we begin to see how animals create a space in the home that might provide support, companionship and joy, as a scientist, we’re going to want to understand that and ask more questions.”

  • Most Recent News

    Students Get Therapy Dog

    January 8, 2021

    When middle school students return to class on Jan. 11, they’ll find a new face at the door: Daisy. Daisy is a therapy dog and the personal pet of Rob Kreger, principal of the Rock L. Butler Middle School. The five-year-old golden retriever is not a school pet or mascot, but rather a working dog […]

    Read more

    Therapy Dogtor

    January 8, 2021

    Last March, Caroline Benzel, a third-year medical student, began to notice the stress and discomfort her nurse friends were feeling from the pressures of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. “[Personal protective equipment] can be really rough on the skin,” Benzel, 31, tells PEOPLE. Benzel and her 3-year-old Rottweiler, Loki (who’s also a therapy dog) hatched a […]

    Read more

    Therapy Dog Pups

    January 8, 2021

    When Stanley the miniature fox terrier’s owner passed away, the little dog started a ‘paw-some’ new role – bringing puppy love to some of the Gold Coast’s oldest residents. After Carinity Cedarbrook Diversional Therapist Julianne Staff adopted Stanley, he began visiting the aged care community at Mudgeeraba as a therapy dog. Therapy dogs help to […]

    Read more

    Puppy Cams

    January 7, 2021

    A nonprofit is providing an unusual form of therapy for those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic – puppy cams! “You spend five minutes with a puppy and try not to smile,” said registered nurse Robin Lingg Lagrone. Lingg Lagrone says watching little furballs wag their tails and prance on their paws helps […]

    Read more

    Pet Committee

    January 7, 2021

    When Moore County’s school doors were abruptly closed earlier in 2020, two- and four-legged volunteers from the Moore County Citizens’ Pet Responsibility Committee (PRC) were in their 12th year of presenting a six-session Pet Responsibility Education Program for fourth-graders. The PRC quickly shifted gears and placed its program materials online as part of a home […]

    Read more

    The Right Rescue Dog

    January 7, 2021

    If your New Year’s resolution is to add a canine family member, good for you. Somewhere out there is the perfect puppy or adult dog for your family. You have a lot of things to think about when you begin to look for that new family member, puppy or dog? Large or small? Purebred or […]

    Read more

    Police Dog Attack

    January 7, 2021

    A resolution headed to the Duluth City Council on Monday could put to rest a lawsuit filed by Teri Lynn Ehlers, an employee of the Patch Motel, who was bitten by a Duluth police dog named Oakley. Former Duluth Police Officer Marc Johnson was a registered guest of the Warroad establishment May 28, 2018, when […]

    Read more

    PAWS With A Cause

    January 7, 2021

    Pebble Hill Plantation and the Thomas County Public Library are pleased to announce the upcoming Enlightening Bites program, “PAWS With a Cause,” on Friday, January 8, 2021 at noon in the Flipper Room of the Library. The program is being presented by Jeri Anderson, field representative. Anderson is recently retired from the City of Monticello, […]

    Read more

    Police Canine Team

    January 7, 2021

    Kingston Police revealed in a news release late Wednesday afternoon that they’ve been keeping a four-legged secret for roughly three months. The force announced it added a second canine unit, with the arrival of police service dog Dak this past October. He is working with Const. Jeff Dickson, while police service dog Bask is working […]

    Read more

    K9s For Warriors

    January 7, 2021

    K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that provides military veterans suffering from severe PTSD, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma with service animals, recently changed the name of its main campus to honor its leader and founder Shari Duval. Duval began K9s For Warriors in 2011 after her son returned from two tours in […]

    Read more

    More Recent News