A study found that dog owners show heightened well-being not only when their pets meet their psychological needs, but when they make an effort to meet these needs for their pets, too. These findings were published in the Journal of Happiness Studies.
Psychology literature has documented various ways that pet ownership can improve one’s quality of life – something called the “pet effect”. Researchers Yaniv Kanat-Maymon and associates propose that the pet effect can be partly explained by the giving and receiving of psychological support between pets and their owners.
Research in humans has shown that the act of caregiving for close others has been associated with psychological wellness for the caregiver. “By extension, then,” the study authors say, “if owners perceive their dogs as close others, it is reasonable to assume that being attuned to what are seen as the dog’s important psychological needs can be need fulfilling for owners, and this, in turn, may be reflected in their enhanced well-being, reduced distress, and increased closeness.”
A total of 104 dog owners between the ages of 16-74 took part in a 21-day diary study where they answered questions about their relationships with their dogs on a daily basis. As a measure of receiving need support from their dogs, participants rated items like, “I feel that my dog really cares for and loves me.” As an assessment of providing need support to their dogs, subjects rated items like, “When I interacted with my dog, I tried to show it that I really care for it.” The questionnaire included need support assessments that measured each of the three basic psychological needs outlined by self-determination theory: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Participants also provided assessments of daily life satisfaction, daily happiness, and daily psychological distress. Finally, they answered an adapted version of the Daily Relationship Quality Scale to measure their perceived closeness to their dog.
Results showed that owners who gave more need support to their dogs had higher well-being and felt increased closeness towards their dogs. Additionally, they experienced less psychological distress. Modeling analysis further showed that the amount of need support given by dog owners predicted daily fluctuations in owners’ well-being, psychological distress, and relationship with their pets.
As was expected, the level of need support that owners felt they received from their dogs was also associated with enhanced well-being and closeness, and less distress. However, the authors highlight that the effects of giving support were shown “over and above the effects of receiving need support”, suggesting that providing need support to a pet is a “unique source of need fulfilment in and of itself.”
The researchers explain that pet owners tend to project human characteristics onto their pets and may, therefore, perceive their pets as having the same psychological needs as humans. “If dogs are perceived as having basic psychological needs, trying to support these needs can be beneficial to the care provider in the same manner as supporting the needs of close humans is beneficial.” The authors suggest that future studies should consider whether the extent to which people humanize their pets – known as anthropomorphism – might influence the benefits received from providing need support.
The authors express that these findings add to researchers’ understanding of the pet effect, suggesting that simply owning a pet is not enough to boost well-being. “For instance,” they say, “having a dog for the purpose of intimidating burglars may have little to do with basic needs satisfaction and thus is less likely to have an impact on psychological wellness.” Rather, they add, “having a dog for companionship purposes is likely to involve both giving and receiving need support and will have well-being benefits.”
The study, “The Benefits of Giving as well as Receiving Need Support in Human–Pet Relations”, was authored by Yaniv Kanat‑Maymon, Shira Wolfson, Rinat Cohen, and Guy Roth.