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Seeking Comfort From Dogs

Why do some people prefer the company of animals?

Key points

  • In a recent UK study, roughly four out of five dog owners got their dog for companionship.
  • A pet dog can sometimes improve dysfunctional family dynamics.
  • Dogs can help fulfill the social and emotional attachment needs of at-risk children, individuals on the autism spectrum, and others.
  • Kids who are bullied or victimized can gain emotional support from a dog.
sabina fratila/Unsplash
Source: sabina fratila/Unsplash

Dogs meet our needs in so many ways—acting as our eyes, helping with livestock, locating bombs, or simply motivating us to get up off the couch.

Our attraction to these four-legged wonders reflects a host of practical, social, and emotional motivations. In an online survey of 8,050 dog owners in the UK, approximately 48 percent attributed their dog ownership decision to the goal of getting more exercise; roughly 80 percent said they simply wanted a dog for companionship.

Research suggests that when other people in our life are not meeting our social and emotional attachment needs, we are apt to turn to dogs and other animals as a substitute.

Findings underscore this effect in children, adolescents, and adults.

For example, a team from Spain and Italy looked at 68 mother-child dyads who had a dog. Children characterized as being securely attached to their mother were found to be more well-adjusted psychologically and, at the same time, less likely to be attached to their dog. Researchers speculated that these children had less need for their dogs to compensate for their maternal attachment relationship deficiencies.

Pet dogs may serve as surrogate attachment figures, particularly for growing kids during the period when they naturally pull away from their parents.

For a sample of 700 middle school students in Germany, the researchers found that “The more time spent with a pet, the more likely the adolescent played online games for leisure and browsed the Internet about animals. The more attached one was to a pet companion, the more likely an adolescent provided and received online social support.”

It's not just young children who become attached to a dog. Students bound for college can maintain deep feelings for them.

In a study from Washington State University, a quarter of students who left behind pet dogs to attend college reported moderate to severe pet-related separation anxiety. The greater the students’ attachment to their pets compared to their attachment to other people, the more time they spent talking or sleeping with their pets, the more likely they were to experience anxiety over the separation.

Perhaps these young people turned to their dogs for solace and comfort amid the trials and tribulations of growing up. It’s shown that a family dog can provide mental health benefits to teens who are bullied and victimized. A study published in Anthrozoös reported that for such teens, an animal’s perceived emotional support helps curb negative impacts, such as feelings of anxiety, attention problems, and aggression.

Dogs and other pets often serve as substitutes for human social contact for individuals on the autistic spectrum, according to a study in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Dogs’ innate ability to provide social support can also benefit parents of children on the autistic spectrum. In a study from the UK, control families that remained dog-less had consistent levels of dysfunctional parent-child interactions. But those families that got a dog saw significant improvements in interpersonal dynamics, and 20 percent of these parents saw their stress drop from clinically high to normal levels. It appears that adults who may be struggling to parent can improve family dynamics while gaining valuable emotional support from dogs themself.

What dogs can teach us about ourselves.


Holland, K. E., Mead, R., Casey, R. A., Upjohn, M. M., & Christley, R. M. (2022). Why Do People Want Dogs? A Mixed-Methods Study of Motivations for Dog Acquisition in the United Kingdom. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 9, 877950.

Charmaraman, L., Mueller, M. K., & Richer, A. M. (2020). The Role of Pet Companionship in Online and Offline Social Interactions in Adolescence. Child and Adolescent Social Work Journal, 37(6), 589–599.

Carr, A. M., & Pendry, P. (2022). Understanding Links Between College Students’ Childhood Pet Ownership, Attachment, and Separation Anxiety During the Transition to College. Anthrozoös, 35(1), 125–142.

Ribera, L. B., Longobardi, C., Prino, L. E., & Fabris, M. A. (2022). Secure Attachment to Mother and Children’s Psychological Adjustment: The Mediating Role of Pet Attachment. Anthrozoös, 0(0), 1–15.

Atherton, G., Edisbury, E., Piovesan, A., & Cross, L. (2022). ‘They ask no questions and pass no criticism’: A mixed-methods study exploring pet ownership in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

Hall, S. S., Wright, H. F., Hames, A., & Mills, D. S. (2016). The long-term benefits of dog ownership in families with children with autism. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 13, 46–54.

Hull, K., Guarneri-White, M., & Jensen-Campbell, L. A. (2022). Canine Comfort: The Protective Effects of Dog Ownership and Support for Victimized Adolescents. Anthrozoös, 35(4), 577–600.

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