Having a nonjudgmental companion by your side is one of the simplest remedies to an anxiety attack. Sometimes friends and family can't always be by your side, but that's when you look towards a loving pet. As a result, owning an emotional support animal has become a popular trend with people with mental illnesses.

Johanna Lass-Hennemann, a senior lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Saarland University, tested to see if dogs not only helped people with their general anxiety, but also helped alleviate stress from a traumatic event. To test this, Lass-Hennemann monitored the reactions of four different groups as they watched a violent film clip. Lass-Henneman's study published in Frontiers shows how dogs play pivotal anxiety-reducing roles in people's lives, and suggests that therapy dogs could be effective in treating PTSD.

Watching Traumatic Film Clips

Lass-Hennemann recruited 80 healthy females that had no previous experience of trauma. Participants completed the Pet Attitude Scale to show their general attitude towards pets. All subjects had to be willing to work with dogs. Three hours prior to the experiment, the participants were not allowed to physically exert themselves or consume alcohol or caffeine. The 80 women were then divided into four groups of 20. For the experiment, each group watched physically and sexually violent scenes from the film Irreversible under one of four conditions:

  • With a trained therapy dog: The dog laid quietly alongside the participant. If at any point the subject felt anxious, they were allowed to touch the dog.
  • With a toy dog: The toy dog was given a name and was introduced to the participants.
  • With a friendly stranger: A female graduate student unknown to the participants accompanied the screening with them.
  • Alone: Participants watched the film without any company.

During the screening, Lass-Hennemann recorded the participants' blood pressure, electrocardiogram, and cortisol levels.

Once the clip finished, the participants were assessed using the State Trait Anxiety Inventory Scale (STAI-T) and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule (PANAS). The STAIS measured levels of nervousness, tension, and apprehension in individuals. The PANAS compared changes in positive and negative moods.

The Benefits of Having a Companion

Participants in the dog group showed significantly lower anxiety levels than the toy dog and alone group. The friendly stranger group showed similar results. With that in mind, this data suggests that dogs have the ability to provide similar social support as seen in other humans. “The current investigation demonstrates that dogs do not only lead to a stress reduction during cognitive and performance stressors, but also during 'traumatic' stress situations, thereby providing preliminary support for the idea that service dogs may serve as a useful treatment adjunct in PTSD patients by reducing anxiety and stress, when patients are confronted with a reminder of the traumatic event," concludes Lass-Hennemann.

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Source: PubMed

Johanna Lass-Hennemann, Peter Peyk, Markus Streb, Elena Holz, Tanja Michael. Presence of a dog reduces subjective but not physiological stress responses to an analog trauma. Frontiers, 9 September 2014; DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.01010

Date of original publication:

Updated: October 23, 2015