By Elizabeth Harvey
Sammi lets out a big sigh and settles into the steady breathing of sleep on the floor of my office. I release a deep breath and settle in at my desk, observing that I seem to have taken a cue from my dog. Those of us with animal companions (a term used interchangeably with pet) sometimes notice that they seem to be in sync with us, helping set the tone for our mood, or that their presence can help us find a sense of calm, especially during times of intense emotion or distress.
The process of managing emotions is known in human psychology as emotion regulation. Emotion regulation is a process that can be internal or external1. An example of external, or interpersonal, emotion regulation is the normal experience we go through when we have a bad day and someone else’s presence helps lift us out of it. Having someone to help us process and cope with overwhelming feelings shows us how to do a better job of it by ourselves.
Is it possible for the “someone else” involved in emotion regulation to be an animal, particularly an animal companion or therapy animal? The experiences of many of us have with our animals and human psychology research both suggest this can be the case. Those of us with pets in our lives can likely think of many times we’ve turned to them for emotional support or comfort. And though more study is needed, research from an attachment theory perspective supports this idea. Attachment theory seeks to explain human relationships on the basis of an intrinsic need for connection that supports survival, from relationships with early caregivers to romantic partners and other important figures in a person’s life. More to come on these attachment theory explanations and how animals may fit in, but first, a story.
Understanding how pets can be a part of emotion regulation for humans became a research interest for me during my time in graduate school for counseling, when personal experience and professional interest came together on this topic. I was a non-traditional graduate student changing careers after 15 years of work in public policy. After moving back to Las Cruces from Washington, DC, I entered NMSU’s clinical mental health counseling master’s program. Being home in New Mexico rekindled the connection with animals and nature that I had felt growing up here in the midst of dogs, horses, cattle, crops, and wilderness. Over time, I began to incorporate a focus on human-animal interaction in my counseling training. The shared path of my then-four-year-old son and our adopted dog Sammi would soon give me an even greater appreciation for the difference animals can make.
As we adjusted to our new life in New Mexico, my son had a major struggle with separation anxiety as we tried to start him in preschool. He dreaded being left at school and was scared that I wouldn’t come back. No amount of reassurance made a difference and he would cry inconsolably if I left him at school. We tried many approaches to help with this situation but the negative impact was ongoing. We had to take a break from his starting school. As I considered our options, a school psychologist friend suggested that maybe a dog could help. We had already been thinking of adding a dog to our family, and soon adopted Sammi, a Golden Retriever mix, through a local rescue.
Sammi’s story leading up to her adoption was a mystery to us, but we knew she needed care to heal and recover. She had a haggard mama-dog look with protruding ribs and evidence of recently nursing pups, though she seemed to be just out of puppyhood herself. She had intestinal parasites, and an infection complicated her recovery from being spayed in the shelter. When we first brought her home, she passed by the soft bed we made for her and curled up in the fetal position on the cool brick floor, sleeping for hours. Sammi stayed glued to my side as I moved from room to room in the house and refused to go outside by herself. I started calling her my “Golden shadow.” When we tried to leave the house without her, she barked and cried, frantically trying to follow us. As it turned out, Sammi also had separation anxiety.
The kindest approach to helping our new dog adjust seemed to be to take her in the car with us whenever we could. Soon, this included a trip to the preschool in the mornings as we made another attempt at going to school. This time was different. My son somehow began to feel more comfortable getting dropped off if Sammi accompanied him into the lobby. It was a major turning point after the stresses we had experienced with his transition to school. Sammi’s presence at drop-off comforted and calmed him so that he was able to walk in and join the other children without panicking about my leaving. In other words, Sammi’s presence helped him regulate his emotions. As he continued to mature, he was able to do this more and more on his own. He would happily go into school with Sammi dropping him off, knowing she would be there to pick him up later. Both boy and dog healed and grew. In a happy parallel, Sammi soon became comfortable staying at home by herself.
So, turning back to theory, how do we explain the turning point in this story and the emotion regulation that was supported and facilitated by an animal companion? Attachment theory is a good place to start. John Bowlby’s attachment theory began as an explanation of the bond between an adult caregiver and an infant, in which the caregiver provides safety and security, and the infant seeks out the caregiver when threatened2. The underlying idea is that emotional connection to the caregiver, or attachment figure, is innate and helps the infant survive. It is largely accepted in the study of human-animal interaction that pets can fill the role of attachment figure.3 In the current study of adult attachment, the attachment system is seen as an “emotion regulation device” that helps in coping with threats and regaining positive feelings.4 It is possible to bring these ideas together, making the connection that a close relationship with an animal could result in emotion regulation, the attachment bond playing an important role in helping a person cope with challenging emotions and distress.5
Understanding how animals take part in emotion regulation for humans has daily relevance for the millions of pet-owning households around the world, but also has more targeted applications. Emotional regulation is considered key for processing trauma and post-traumatic growth6, highlighting the potential value of companion and therapy animals in the lives of those experiencing or recovering from trauma, including those in correctional settings and transitioning from service in a warzone.7 Understanding the important role animals can fulfill in emotion regulation also raises the question of what may happen to a person’s ability to manage emotions when a special bond with an animal is lost, particularly if that relationship was a lifeline to someone in challenging circumstances.
The story of Sammi and my son brought me to wonder how it was that interaction with a dog was a catalyst for my son’s improvement when nothing else seemed to work. Continuing to explore the questions of how and for whom relationships with animals can help with managing emotions is research that can make a difference in people’s lives. And for me, this is meaningful and relevant in my work as a counselor with clients who have important animals in their lives.
Elizabeth Harvey is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor practicing in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Her practice is focused on grief, including animal companion loss, and supporting clients working in fields related to animals. She is also an independent researcher and writer on human-animal interaction. www.elizabethharveycounseling.com
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5. Blazina, C., & Abrams, E.H. (2018). Working with men and their dogs: How context informs clinical practice when the bond is present in males’ lives. In Kogan, L. and Blazina, C. (Eds). Clinician’s Guide to Treating Animal Companion Issues. San Diego: Elsevier.
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7. Blazina, C., & Abrams, E.H. (2018). Working with men and their dogs: How context informs clinical practice when the bond is present in males’ lives. In Kogan, L. and Blazina, C. (Eds). Clinician’s Guide to Treating Animal Companion Issues. San Diego: Elsevier.