Book Review: Men and Their Dogs

A new book investigates the psychology of the bond between men and their dogs.

A man and his Australian Shepherd dog sit at a viewpoint
Photo: Melounix/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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Men and Their Dogs: A New Understanding of Man's Best Friend, edited by Christopher Blazina and Lori R. Kogan, is a collection of essays about the different roles dogs play in men’s lives, and the potential for bringing about psychological change. The book covers topics ranging from gender role conflict, the therapeutic use of programmes using dogs in prisons and with at-risk youth, the value of play with dogs and relationships with pets at different stages of the lifespan. It’s a fascinating read for psychologists interested to learn more about the human-animal bond.

The chapters explore how dogs affect psychological processes such as intrapersonal growth, attachment and empathy. Although the focus of the book is men, there is much of relevance to both men and women.

This book is a great resource for anyone interested in programs that involve animals, including those aimed at veterans, at-risk youth, homeless youth, prison dog programs, and programs designed to help seniors and people with disabilities keep pets in the home. The chapters provide descriptions and evaluations of the programs, and many also refer to resources that will help those wishing to set up similar programs in their own community.

The chapters also discuss issues with research in this area, including the need for more randomized controlled trials to evaluate the effects of companion animals, the problems with gaining access to institutions or even to people without their pets, and the need to understand the psychological mechanisms by which pets might affect physical and psychological health. In doing so, it sets the agenda for future research in this field.

Chapter 1 by Chris Blazina and Lori R. Kogan sets the scene for the rest of the book. Where male socialization and striving to meet societal norms may sometimes put men at risk, dogs can offer a gender-neutral space in which psychological needs may be met. While recognizing there may be many within-group differences in how men experience interactions with their dogs, the book aims to advance our theoretical and empirical knowledge of the role of dogs in men’s lives. They say,
“We argue that animal companions offer many men a respite from the strain of traditional male gender roles. The shared bond may also be one that prompts transformation in males’ lives.” 
The book covers themes such as attachment, loss, masculinity, gender role conflict, and a reluctance to seek help.

Chapter 2 by James M. O’Neil, Robyn Denke and Chris Blazina summarizes several decades of research on Gender Role Conflict and considers how it applies to the human-animal bond. Men may experience gender role conflict due to societal norms, and this has been linked with a range of psychological problems including depression and self-harm. Gender roles do not apply to animals and so the human-animal bond may be a way of learning about and transforming men’s sense of self. For example, men who find it difficult to be affectionate and close to other people because of gendered expectations about how they should be may nonetheless be able to be affectionate with their dog, and to talk to their dog about personal issues. The authors recommend several lines of research, starting with qualitative interviews with men about the meaning of animals to them. They end the chapter with suggestions for ways in which the human-animal bond can be used in a transformative way to help men with gender role conflict and fear of femininity become more whole.

A Black man crouches next to his dog, a Golden Retriever,  in the park in Autumn
Photo: Air Images/Shutterstock

Chapter 3 by Chris Blazina, James M.O’Neil and Robyn Denke proposes a model for understanding human-animal interaction in men. The model looks at how gender role stereotypes affect men’s relationship with animals, and the space such relationships may provide for personal growth and learning less-stereotyped behaviours.

The model begins by considering insecurity in mens’ attachments, and the way this is affected (and affects) both masculinity and gender role conflict. One possibility is that insecure attachments are carried over into relationships with pets, with negative effects for psychological well-being. On the other hand, the human-animal bond may instead compensate for those prior insecure attachments, in which case the psychological outcomes are far more positive. This chapter provides a lot of context through which the rest of the book may be understood.

“Should homeless people have pets?” Is the question with which Michelle Lem starts chapter 4. She discusses the question in terms of the One Health model. About a quarter of homeless people have pets. Homeless youth have high levels of attachment to their pets, while they often have a history of trauma and insecure attachments to the people in their lives. Dogs may provide security and emotional support, but they also bring difficulties, such as in accessing services that may not allow pets. Dogs may also be seen within the context of ‘street family’ and may be looked after by several individuals within that group. She also considers the role of pets in panhandling and within gangs. The chapter ends with a reframed question: “Should we have youth who are unwanted, uncared for, and without a home?”

In Chapter 5, Jessica Thomas looks at the effects of a 3-week programme in which at-risk youth work with a shelter dog, to teach the dog basic obedience and get it ready to find a new home. Quotes included from participants illustrate the positive effects of the programme, e.g.
“Doogie is a great dog… because Doogie is more like a brother than a dog [and he] helped me through all of this giving me the confidence I needed.” 
Questionnaire results from the study showed significant improvements in intrapersonal functioning. The results are interpreted in light of attachment theory and in the way dogs provide a ‘gender role neutral’ situation in which boys can explore their feelings.

In Chapter 6, Amy Johnson and Laura Bruneau write about the Teacher’s Pet program, a 10-week animal-assisted intervention that teaches young people to train shelter dogs. The program includes humane education and each participant trains 2 dogs (one per 5 weeks) with a graduation ceremony for the dogs at the end. The chapter begins with three cases studies of youth and what they learned from the program. The youths may be struggling with gender role conflict, such as wanting to be soft but not feeling that society allows them to be. A particularly moving anecdote is included, where a dog ran away but the youth who had been training him was able to find him, and said he had told the dog that “if Moto were ever to feel unsafe, he should go to their safe spot.” This gives insight into how the program affects participants. The chapter includes details of the program and how it is designed, along with preliminary results from a randomized controlled trial.

Safe Humane Chicago is the subject of Chapter 7 by Cynthia L. Bathurst and Lisa Lunghofer. This is an alliance of community groups and organizations that run a wide range of programs based on the idea of a link between humane treatment of animals and wider safety within the community. For youth, they say,
“programs that offer the most promise provide youth with the opportunity to engage in structured activities and build positive relationships with carefully screened and matched volunteers.” 
The chapter focuses on Lifetime Bonds for youth who are involved with the courts. It describes a 12-week program at the Illinois Youth Centre (Phase 1) and a 6-month internship (Phase 2) for young men released from jail. The chapter ends with examples of the participant’s writing and artwork about the experience, which are very moving.

“You take a throw-away boy and a throw-away dog, and you put us together. We help them: they get adopted and find homes. We get out and have better skills and feel like we’ve accomplished something.” (Quote from young man who participated in Lifetime Bonds, chapter 7).

In Chapter 8, Mary Harlinger and Chris Blazina look at the effects of an intervention that involved men recalling an episode of play with their dog. Playfulness is linked to resilience since it involves an openness to change. While the memory intervention increased playfulness, it did not decrease stress. However they note that the sample was already low in gender role conflict and had high initial scores for playfulness. They go on to discuss the potential role of play in men’s relationships with their dogs, and that play is different from the rigidity often expected due to masculine stereotypes. They also suggest that play may increase attachment to dogs.

Angela Fournier looks at interactions between men and dogs in prison in Chapter 9. Inmates adopt prison culture, including an ‘us and them’ stance with correctional staff, and lose many if not all opportunities to exercise their role as a father. Prison dog programmes may work in part because they allow the cultivation of various aspects of identity that are similar to fatherhood. Although there is both anecdotal and empirical evidence that prison animal programmes have positive outcomes, the role of interaction with the animals has been neglected, and is the focus of research presented in this chapter. For example, 96% of participants in the Pen Pals prison dog programme talked to a dog, and 64% said they had hugged or kissed a dog in the previous week. Qualitative data from inmates’ applications to join the program and from focus groups reflected themes such as nurturance, wanting to ‘give back’, and gaining “a sense of humanity”.

A dog kisses a man who is sitting on the sofa with his coffee
Photo: Daxiao Productions/Shutterstock

Chapter 10 by Teri L. Carper, Anne S. Bartone and Frederick C. Petty looks at the many different animal programs that exist for veterans, distinguishing between different kinds of programs such as animal-assisted activities (which include a range of activities), animal-assisted therapy (which is more formal and goal-directed), service animals, emotional support animals, animals that live at residential facilities, and dog training programs. They provide a list of organizations providing such programs. However, they say, it is difficult to design evidence-based programs because of the lack of research that compares them to other established therapies and a lack of understanding of the psychological mechanisms through which such programs work. They discuss contraindications with the use of dogs in treatment for PTSD and the need to develop best practices.

The role of dogs in the lives of middle-aged men is the subject of Chapter 11 by Chris Blazina and Anne S. Bartone. They argue the need to take account of other contexts than masculinity, as all men will not have the same experiences. The researchers also developed and validated the Companion Animal Roles Scale which assesses the extent to which a pet is regarded as a friend or family member. Using factor analysis, the items are grouped into Emotional Bond, Personal Growth, and Life Style. This research adds to our understanding of the psychological roles that companion animals play in men’s lives, and they suggest further research with both men and women. They also suggest research into how the human-animal bond changes with the age of the dog (e.g. as senior dogs need more care) and through the human lifespan.

This leads nicely into Chapter 12 by Anne S. Bartone and Chris Blazina about a survey on attachment to dogs across men’s lifespan. While gender role conflict reduced from young men to middle- aged, as found in other studies, attachment to dogs and social support provided by dogs is greater in middle age. When a dog died, dissonant grief reactions were reported more often by younger men, suggesting they are more constrained by gender roles and less able to express their grief. Psychologists could note that men at middle age may be more likely to experience profound grief reactions to the loss of a pet than younger men. Bartone and Blazina also suggest collaborations between psychologists and veterinary scientists to provide better communication and support to clients on the loss of a pet.

Chapter 13 by Lori R. Kogan describes the situation for seniors in the US, most of whom live independently, and the particular issues men may face due to the pressures of maintaining a masculine identity. Pets may potentially help older adults in many ways, including increased opportunities for exercise, social support, better physical and psychological health, and a sense of purpose. Nevertheless research shows that older adults are less likely to have pets because of concerns about caring for them, and those with pets may be less likely to access medical care because of fears about who will care for their pet if they are hospitalized. Challenges with research in this area are also discussed, including the difficulties of comparing groups with and without their pets when people choose to have their pet with them.

Against this background, Chapter 14, also by Lori R. Kogan, looks at the opportunities provided by service learning, which combines study in the classroom with learning in a community setting. Service learning courses in which young people work with older adults can lead to better attitudes to seniors and more positive attitudes towards their own old age. Pets Forever is a program that aims to help low-income seniors and people with disabilities keep their pets as long as possible, by providing services including dog walking (with and without the owner present), grooming for pets, litter tray cleaning, and provision of pet food. The classroom sessions for students include discussion of service delivery and any issues arising as well as invited speakers from a range of community organizations. The benefits for older people include being able to keep their pets, and this may in particular be a way to help older men who in other parts of their lives feel a need to maintain masculine ideals and restrict displays of emotion.

“This class was much more than spending time with animals; it opened my eyes to this whole other part of the community that I have unfortunately never thought much about.” (student in Pets Forever, quoted in chapter 14).

The final chapter is about men’s experiences of grief after losing a pet. This may be a disenfranchised grief since many people do not acknowledge or understand the experience of loss of a pet. The idea of “continuing bonds”, using memories, dreams, sharing stories of the pet with others and keeping items such as the pet’s blanket can help with the emotions experienced after loss. The chapter draws on cross-cultural research in which men spoke of the intensity of their loss, how it was not always recognized by others, their relationship with their pet, and that continuing bonds could be both distressing and helpful. Clinical implications include teaching clients about the use of continuing bonds and providing resources about pet loss. Clinicians must also recognize the significance of pet loss, instead of diminishing it by insisting on a search for the ‘real reasons’ for grief.

Although the book is aimed at psychologists, anyone with an interest in human-animal interaction programs will find a lot of value in this book, which makes important theoretical and empirical contributions to the field.

Men and Their Dogs is available from all good bookstores and my Amazon store.

I received a review copy of the book.

Blazina, C. and Kogan, R. R. (Eds) (2016) Man and their dogs: A new understanding of man’s best friend. Springer.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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