Very few people fail to respond in an emotional way to the approach, presence or playful antics of a friendly companion animal. An interesting social phenomenon is the effect pet animals frequently have on the social communication between two or more people. Pets have the ability to act as ‘social facilitators’ often helping to initiate conversations – even between complete strangers.
For example, consider the waiting room of a typical medical practice and compare it with that of a veterinarian. In the former, people hardly ever communicate unless they are slightly acquainted; in the latter, however, people frequently enter into lengthy, deep and emotional discussions, with strangers, about their pets.
The image of a man changes dramatically in the eyes of a woman if he has a dog with him.
Lonely people cannot wait to tell strangers about the habits and character of their beloved pet cat or dog.
Pets allow better communication between people with emotional problems within families, within social circles and opens networking with the rest of society.
Children who do not grow up with a positive meaningful relationship with animals, including horses and other farm animals, are not only deprived but can have adaptation disorders with relationships and human contact in adult life.
Research has shown that in psychiatric institutions some patients only start talking to staff after the introduction of a dog. Pet-facilitated therapy is well-known world-wide in psychological, veterinary and psychiatric circles. Although this form of therapy may induce a wide variety of positive changes the most noticeable effect is the estimated 80% increase in inter-human communication. In old-age homes and retirement villages residents live longer and healthier lives if they own pets as long as they are still competent to do so. In studies during sessions for human depression 85% of patients move closer together and vocalize more when a dog is in the same room. Some patients spontaneously revealed highly personal information when allowed to hold or stroke a friendly dog.
The decision to use dogs as therapy or social catalysts depends on several factors:
- The type of illness
- Whether people like animals
- Cultural considerations
- The alertness of the patients
- Some people may respond to other animals e.g. birds, cats etc.
Some renowned animal behaviourists and therapists have used the term ‘social lubricants’ to describe the phenomenon of pets increasing social contacts between people. Pets offer some sanity, pleasure, companionship, contact with nature and self-esteem in a hostile world.
Guide-dogs offer their owners an improvement in mobility, self-esteem and 35% increased contact with members of the public who would, under normal circumstances, ignore a blind person with a white cane. Who would refuse patting a Labrador especially one that serves such a vital function for mankind?!
When strange people meet in a park or shopping centre, both with their dogs on leads, they find it easier to break down barriers by talking to the other person’s dog first. After cooing, admiring and greeting the animals they will pour out their hearts about their pooches. For some lonely people (some lonely in relationships) their dogs are all they got and all they live for. To talk about them to strangers releases all inner secrets, tensions and pride – information they would never reveal about themselves – conversing about their companions is safe and appreciated by other pet owners and some strangers, who do not own but love animals, who are willing to lend an ear.
Research has shown that people will interact more over pets than even a baby in a pram. 6% of strange people in parks may communicate with each other without having animals with them. This increases more than 6-fold to about 38% when a person is walking their dog, taking in to account that they would spend more time in the facility for the benefit of their pet.
Some introverted and autistic children who refuse to communicate with people or are inhibited with speech or chatter within the family environment will often “come out of their shell” by vocalizing, acting and singing in the presence of their pet dog, cat, bird, horse or rabbit. Animals are good listeners and non-judgmental. Animals are more effectively therapeutic for foster children in increasing their communication skills.
The natural attitudes and characteristics of animals often have a direct or indirect influence on the behaviour of children – kids can learn from the “honesty” and meaningful communication of their pets.
Some people admit it, others do not, but many pet owners talk directly to their pooches and cats, discussing their problems and what they intend doing about them, the activities lined up for the following day and secrets which, obviously, can go no further.
Many people talk to others through their pets e.g. a man will look at his dog and ask him if he thinks his wife will let him play golf on Sunday. The wife, in turn, and in the husband’s presence, will answer immediately by requesting the dog to tell her husband that he has to take them to visit friends and golf can be postponed. It seems to take pressure off marital tensions or reveals serious unhappiness in the relationship but, at least, the pet is acting as a social catalyst.
Animals alter social perceptions and there is a collective wealth of evidence proving the various effects on interactions between people. Some of the broader effects are:
- Novelty and interest – the movement of animals is a strong stimulus to attention, so an active pet is likely to be a common focus of interest as both people explore this avenue together
- Envy and self-esteem – a pet may be construed as a desirable object and could trigger interest by a stranger and protection by the owner
- Innate releasing mechanism – in a similar way in which children appear to elicit certain universal responses, small furry animals may instill common responses from any people present
- Common interest – for people who have a strong interest in pets, or for whom pets of a certain type are a hobby, the potential for social interaction is very high. Married couples or relationship partners who are both involved in canine events or cat shows may find that their only form of social lubrication is their lives revolving around animal activities. Take the pets away and they may stare at each other forever. It does not matter – at least they have a passion.
- Improve social judgments – as is done with elements of appearance and dress code, the presence of a pet allows the other person to make certain deductions about the pet owner. This may shorten the lead time to a more interesting conversation, for they can already have made some social assessments.
- Social lubricant – pets are non-threatening, and it is socially acceptable to pet and talk to them even if you do not know them. This facilitates interaction between the owner and the other person. It is not something one can do to a strange person without getting in to one or more categories of serious trouble.
- Ice breaker – a pet cat or dog can actively solicit a social interaction by going up to a person directly. This is a topic in its own right – does the animal approach as a challenge? Does it sense fear in the person? Does it detect body language requiring investigation? Is the person most allergic? Does the person dislike animals? Is there ESP??? Are people easy to read?
These factors are not mutually exclusive. They do not necessarily account for all possible explanations for how pets facilitate social interactions between humans. It does provide a framework for understanding, application and research.
There is one factor that can never be disputed – animals are beneficial to people. People who do not own pets may not have anything wrong with them but they surely have something wrong with their quality of life.