Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Pets and motivation

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Pets and motivation:
How can pets affect our motivation?


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Looking for a Love Connection

Many people are aware of the emotional benefits of pets. In fact, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas states in the foreword of the book Between Pets and People: The Importance of Animal Companionship:

"Not surprisingly, many of us admit our animal companions into the most intimate area of our lives... [A] companion animal provides an intimacy that exceeds any we may experience with virtually any other human being, including our spouses and children; the intimacy is on par with that of mother and newborn infant." (Thomas, 1996)

Humans began utilising animals around 12,000 to 14,000 years ago when wolf cubs, who were raised from birth by humans, were found to remain subordinate to humans as adults and aided them with hunting and pelts which kept the humans warm (pedigree, 2014). It wasn't until the 18th century though that pet ownership became popularised. Since then the use of animals as pets for companionship has risen dramatically and for the animals new jobs have arisen out of this desire for animal contact such as:

  • Seeing Eye Dogs
  • Dyslexia Tutor Dogs
  • Horseback Therapy
  • Dolphin Therapy
  • Geriatric companion animals

Other than just the strictly therapeutic benefits, common house pets can also provide structure, empowerment, relaxation and a reliable relationship, all of which are beneficial to a child's development and to mental wellbeing for both adults and children[factual?]. But first, what is motivation?

this cross-section shows the brains left hemisphere, each part of the brain is integral for us to experience motivation

Motivation is our drive to survive. It serves a purpose of fulfilling all the things we require in life; eating, drinking, being safe and the sense of having a greater purpose in life. On a chemical level, motivation is something we experience due to fluctuating levels of hormones and/or neurotransmitters that send messages to specific areas in our brain due to external (extrinsic) stimulation or internal (intrinsic) motivation. For example, when your stomach decides you are in need of nutrients it increases release of the hormone "Ghrelin". This goes through the bloodstream, up to the Hypothalamus in the brain that sends you a message that you are hungry. This sensation of hunger gives you the drive to get up and make a sandwich with the intent of getting some nutrients into your system. The anomaly of "drive" and "intent" are what defines a motivation. But motivation is not just a chemical procedure.

Motivation begins from when we are born till the day we die. As we age, we hit certain milestones that decide who we become as we grow. When we are born we experience stage 1 of development; trust vs mistrust. In this stage we evaluate whether our environment is predictable and supportive (are my parents caring? am I fed/changed/played with when I require it?). Stage 2 is autonomy vs. shame and self doubt. Children from 2-3 years old experience this stage; many parents would know this stage as the "terrible twos". Children at that age explore whether they are able to do things for themselves of if they will require help from others for everything forever. Stage 3, "initiative vs guilt" asks whether we are good or bad. Children four to six years will be prone to guilt or pride depending on how they adapt to confronting situations; for example, stealing for the cookie jar, lying and then getting caught. The child will be most likely to learn from reprimand at this stage. Finally, we enter stage 4, which continues from six years old onward; the "industry vs inferiority". This is a stage we all continue to experience for the rest of our lives. The individuals ask themselves "am I competent or am I worthless?" This is the drive that pushes us to achieve our long term goals. Failure to achieve goals or desires can result in a sensation of worthlessness that can lead to depression or anxiety.

At any stage of development problems can occur that may lead to psychological problems for the individual. If a child is not given a steady environment they themselves can grow up to be unreliable and psychologically unbalanced. If I child is taught that it is not capable of taking care of itself because parents or teachers do not give opportunities for the child to become independent, they can learn to have low self-esteem and constantly seek out approval and support. At stage three, if proper borders are not taught about right and wrong (or the child is raised in a violent or unhealthy home) children can develop many behavioural problems and can generally become belligerent towards society.

From birth there are also elements of motivation that are not necessarily solely from ourselves but are taught to us as we grow. While physical and psychological needs are things we are born with (as outlined above), social needs are taught to us as we grow. As many parents or people who have met children would know, most do not seem to have a sense of social inhibition. Children will casually announce things that we adults would not consider socially acceptable, such as "I have to go poo", "that man has a funny head", "I hate you! You smell!". As the child ages (s)he learns from experience and example that there is a "social norm". If the child does not adhere to this "social norm", (s)he can be reprimanded by an authority figure and/or shunned or mocked by peers. As children get older they learn that if they avoid this negative behaviour they will be accepted by the people around them, which can give them a sense of joy and safety. Without social interactions people can become increasingly depressed. These examples also all outline our umbrella motivation which is avoidance or approach behaviour. We, as people intrinsically want to approach situations where the pay-off is worth the work and avoid situations where failure or harm is of high probability.

While there are many ways of dealing with issues that can arise from an unhealthy psychological development for example cognitive behavioural therapy and/or medication. Studies have also found that animals can aid children and adults with a variety of psychological or health concerns. While many animals can help a number of physical and psychological issues, not all of them are necessarily convenient. Dolphins, for example, can be used to help aid children with mental, emotional or physical difficulties, but they are not easy to keep around the house. Because of this much research is focussed on cats, dogs and to a lesser degree horses. Out of these dogs are the most prominent research subjects and will therefore be in the focus of this chapter.

Pets and Physical Health

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Pets help health in a variety of ways. Cats' purring can increase bone density and lower blood pressure which has since been harnessed for medical reasons (Simos & Daar, 2007). Dogs can increase serotonin secretion which lowers stress levels and, in turn, reduces the probability of a heart attack[factual?]. Horses increase muscle tone by transmitting around 110 pulsations per minute to the rider in a series of three-dimensional movements: back and forward, up and down, left and right and rotational which can emanate throughout the whole body (The Asociación de Asocequinoterapia Ismael Pinto [1]). Other than the previously outlined benefits of therapy animals, everyone's four-legged friends can help them get motivated to get on their feet[how?].

Exercise Motivation

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Anyone who has owned a dog is aware that dogs are quite good at misbehaving. Whether they are chewing up shoes, barking or just generally misbehaving, dogs can create a chaotic environment when they are unhappy. But there is a simple way to avoid that. Taking dogs out for 20 to 45 minute walks every day can keep your companion happy and healthy. This scenario shows us a perfect example as to how dogs can motivate us to exercise. Exercise can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, lower our stress levels and aid us to have longer lives[factual?], but sometimes this knowledge is not enough to get us motivated and exercising.

Many of us experience exercise motivation through "intrinsic motivation". This is when we feel within ourselves that we should do something to better ourselves. For example, exercising when we feel we should become fitter. Let us elaborate on that. You have a mental image of you being slim and healthy; this is your "ideal state". You then look in the mirror and see that you are not as toned as you wish you were; this is your "present state". You then decide that you are going to start jogging around your block every Saturday afternoon until you get your ideal body. This is called "corrective motivation" as it is created from our desire to correct the difference between our current body and our ideal body. You maintain your motivation to exercise by looking in the mirror on a daily basis to monitor the way your body is changing. That is, you have a feedback on the effect of your activity. If your body changes for the better quickly and visibly, you will be happier and more motivated to continue your jogging. On the other hand, if your body is taking longer than expected to slim down then your motivation to continue will drop dramatically. That is where most people get trapped when creating a goal but failing to see it through.

This is where things start to get interesting. Let us say your body is not slimming down as fast as you would like. This might be compounded with external pressures in your life that are taking priority over your goal for a healthier self, such as exams at uni, increased pressure at work, or family issues. Those who are genuinely motivated to continue the journey to a slim body will adapt and create an "implementation intention". This is a plan that they set out to makes them focus on their goal and avoid being dragged away by distractions. But let us assume that you are somewhat less determined. You are feeling stressed and discouraged by your slow process. You are unsure as to what to do now to make sure you continue your walks. Until you see your dog. You decide to adapt your behaviour (with an extrinsic motivator) to incorporate your dog. Now you have an additional reason to go out on your walk. Johnson and Meadows (2010) decided to test out the theory that dogs would aid people to adhere to a running schedule and found that 72% of the participants adhered to the 5 days per week, 50 week schedule. The participants stated their reason for adherence was "the dogs need us to walk them".

In another study done in 2012, participants were interviewed about the structure of their days maintaining their dogs:

"Almost all of the owners interviewed indicated that looking after their dogs' needs for exercise, socialisation and toilet breaks motivated them to be physically active outdoors. Of particular interest was how important for some of our participants the presence of the dog was as a driver of physical activity." (Degeling & Rock, 2012)

If your dog does not have his weekly (or more frequent) walk he will begin to express destructive behaviour or become unhealthy (psychologically and physically) and overweight, shortening his lifespan. This is a motivation to you to get out and exercise. Bringing your dog along also gives you a companion (one that will never call at the last minute and say they don't feel like it) which can make jogging more fun and more enticing to continue even if your personal goals are not being met within your projected timeframe.

Therapy Pets

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The subject of therapy pets is one of great discussion. It has become popular practice in hospitals to have a therapy dog to visit and entertain younger patients and support those going through invasive procedures (such as chemotherapy). For aged care both cats and dogs have been trialled as to alleviate depression in the elderly, and both dolphins and horses have been used for physical therapy for children with Cerebral Palsy, Asthma and Down Syndrome. Not much research has been put into therapy pets other than dogs, although some comparison papers have arisen about whether dogs or cats are better at aiding people in a therapeutic sense. The results are not clear. According to Zasloff (1996) "The results showed that, when two items pertaining to dogs were included, dog owners showed a significantly higher degree of attachment. When only the 11 items pertaining to the emotional nature of the relationship were included, however, there were no differences in the scores of the two groups. The results indicate the importance of clarifying both the commonalities and differences of human interactions with various companion animal species.". However, another study by Zizzelman, Rovner, Shmuely & Ferrie (1995) stated that while cats were marginally beneficial as companion pets in geriatric centres, these companions were only beneficial to those who had previously owned pets and already had a yearning for a pet, for those who had not had pets previously no noticeable benefits occurred.

Horse Therapy
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Many people have found that equine therapy has been beneficial for people with various forms of both physical and mental disabilities. Organisations such as "Pegasus Riding School for the Disabled" have created schools that are designed specifically for mentally challenged or physically handicapped individuals to be able to gain muscle strength and tone from the horses natural movement and bond with the animals to gain confidence. Horses are used for physical therapy for children with issues such as Down Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, Joint Degeneration, Asthma and more. Children with autism who are exposed to therapeutic horseback riding show greater social motivation, and greater sensory seeking (Bass, Duchowny & Llabre, 2009). The Asociación de Asocequinoterapia Ismael Pinto (mentioned previously) states "equine therapy is a complementary therapy that stimulates the entire body of the patient. The patient, regardless of age, when on top of the horse increase their self-esteem, enjoy the therapy and when accompanied by a combination of other therapies (music, massage therapy, coordination, sensory therapy, psychotherapy, etc.) during the riding period increases the patient's rehabilitation." [2]

Therapy Dogs
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Hospitals are not the only place therapy pets are beneficial. Other than just hospitals and other clinical settings dogs have been harnessed in the classroom and the home. In a study done by Jalongo, Astorino and Bomboy (2004) "Empirical research supports the contention that the presence of mellow companion animals tends to reduce stress. Physiological measures such as a reduction in heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and other observable signs of anxiety reveal that interacting with a dog can moderate stress." This information has been used to aid children studying, people with learning difficulties and can even be beneficial to people such as busy workers or uni students during assessment period. In fact, the use of dogs in the aid of dyslexics has been so positive that the R.E.A.D. (Reading Education Assistance Dogs) programme has been founded by the Intermountain Therapy Animals organisation.

Go Dog Go

"A third-grader who is a reluctant reader eagerly awaits his weekly opportunity to read aloud to a trained therapy dog, a golden retriever named Maya. As this struggling reader shares a book with his canine companion, the boy relaxes and reads with greater confidence and fluency. Later that week when the boy shares the same book with his sixth-grade tutor, that practice with a calm and patient canine partner pays off: the tutor remarks, “Hey, that was good. Your reading is getting better.” (Jalongo, Astorino & Bomboy, 2004)

When individuals get stressed for whatever reason they experience something called 'negative feedback'. This is when a person weighs up a task and decides whether the payoff for success is greater than the perceived loss if the task fails, and how likely the individual is to achieve payoff rather than failure. If the chance of failure is higher than the probability of success or the value of reward, the individual will then experience 'aversion behaviour'. This can manifest in fight or flight, aggressive behaviour, procrastinating and pessimism. If the person attempts the task anyway and fails consistently then the individual develops "learned hopelessness". An experiment done by Seligman and Maier (1967) examined that phenomenon. Dogs were put into three groups: inescapable shock, escapable shock and no shock. The dogs in the shock group were given a mild but unpleasant electric shock lasting for five seconds. In the inescapable shock group no matter what the dogs did, the shock would continue for the full five seconds. Those in the escapable shock group could press a button presented to them and the shock would end. The "no shock" group was not subjected to any shock at all. Eventually all dogs were put into a chamber with a split floor. One side of the floor was electrified, but the other side not with. A partial partition separated the two halves. A light would flicker 10 seconds before the shock was emitted through the floor, giving the dog sufficient time to overstep the barrier and avoid the shock. Dogs in the "no shock" and "escapable shock" groups realised, after a few trials, that they could escape any shock by jumping over the partition. Eventually when the lights began to flicker the dogs would step over the barrier and avoid the shock altogether. However, those in the "inescapable shock" group did not respond similarly once put in the box. Dogs who could not avoid the shock in the early stages of experimentation, could no longer consider that there was a way to escape the shock. Instead of trying to escape over the partition like the other dogs did, they just passively accepted the shock. This shows us that helplessness is actually a learned behaviour. If a student is given consistent negative feedback on his reading and is also given negative feedback when practicing his reading, he will try to avoid the situation. Since reading is a mandatory part of our lives, it may not be possible. Therefore, the student would come to accept failure and look at reading in an extremely negative light. This vicious circle can continue for an individual's entire life. Therapy dogs in reading have a reducing effect on this learned helplessness because the animals always have a positive, calm emotional state. Students in turn feel a lot more relaxed and fear less from being critiqued or judged on their mistakes. As their self-confidence grows, they learn to carry their reading (or any task) in stressful situations; such as reading to a teacher in class.


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There are many different levels of motivation. At each level of motivational development problems can occur which can cause lifelong psychological issues (such as lack of confidence or hyper aggression) that can in turn develop into deeper illnesses such as anxiety, depression or dependant personality disorder. Animals can help treat some of these illnesses by being positive, supportive companions. Because of their supportive status, animals can also help those with not only psychological disorders but also physical trauma or developmental disorders (such as Downs Syndrome), by aiding physical heath (building muscle tone) and being a supportive therapy partner which causes the patients to be more willing to continue treatment (through emotional benefits they can provide we can be more willing to attack tasks we may otherwise find difficult to handle, such as learning to deal with the struggles of being an amputee)

In his study on humans connections with their pets Rynearson (1978) stated; "The bond between human and pet depends on their commonality as animals and their mutual need for attachment". When those individuals do not get the socialisation they require from other humans they turn their attention to animals to fill the void. This can in some occurrences become unhealthy (though that is another topic for another day) but on a healthy level pets teach us:

Benefits for Everyone
  • To appreciate nature and to experience wildlife
  • To be inspired and to learn
  • To be childlike and playful
  • To be altruistic and nurturing
  • To have or to express companionship, caring, comfort or calmness
  • To parent
  • To strengthen bonds with other humans

(As stated by Crowell-Davis, 2008)

So animals are not only good for those with psychological or physical disorders, they are also beneficial to the general public. Through our own sense of responsibility we can be motivated to exercise our furry friends and by proxy exercise ourselves. They can also aid children and adults in gaining responsibility and education (R.E.A.D. program) and they can offer all of us a loyal, loveable companion that will help us deal with stressful life events, give our children a friend they can love and depend on and extend our lives all of which help push us forward and working towards our next life goal.


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