As more and more people began practicing social distancing and self-quarantine in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, social isolation became a subject of interest for many. University of Arizona evolutionary anthropologist and comparative psychologist Evan MacLean described how dogs may provide welcome emotional support for those experiencing isolation and anxiety. MacLean is an assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Q: What research in your field shows how dogs can provide comfort or reduce anxiety?
A: There are a good number of studies that suggest dogs can have a stress-buffering effect on people going through challenging times. We see this not only in terms of people’s perceived sense of well-being but also in terms of physiological measures like heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol — a hormone involved in stress responses. Part of the effect is probably very similar to the support we get from our human friends and family, who can help us to weather the storm. Dogs may provide that same kind of social support, as figures that will be beside us through thick and thin.
Q: How might walking one’s dog serve as a coping mechanism?
A: One thing we know is that sitting around worrying doesn’t do much good for our mental health. So, refocusing our mental energy on something positive, like playing with your pup or taking a walk together — exercise is also great for stress reduction — could bring welcome relief.
Q: Does any of your research show that dogs have awareness of human emotion?
A: This is still a very actively researched question without a lot of concrete knowledge. We know dogs respond to many human emotions, but what exactly they tune in to, and whether and how they understand our emotions, is still debated. But even if we can’t be sure exactly what they understand about our emotions, as highly social animals they will be tuned in to cues about how we are feeling, which may, in turn, affect their own feelings and behavior.
Q: A 2019 study revealed that dogs may synchronize their stress levels with ours. How can we ensure that our pets don’t take on undue stress?
A: Check in on and spend time with your dogs. For people working at home, we need little breaks in the day anyway, and this can be a great opportunity to take five, sit down with your dog and just pet them gently. If you think about synchronizing your breath and developing a soft and slow petting rhythm, I suspect that both you and your dog will be feeling relaxed in no time.
Q: A recent viral tweet joked that dogs had conspired to create the coronavirus so that their humans would be forced to work from home. What do you think?
A: We’ve yet to find any evidence that dogs are a conspiratorial species.