LAS CRUCES – About 13 years ago, Chris Blazina lost his best friend, Kelsey, his trustworthy companion who had experienced life’s ups and downs alongside him.
Although Blazina, a psychologist and professor at the New Mexico State University College of Education’s Department of Counseling and Educational Psychology, grieved Kelsey’s death, he began thinking about the strong connection between men and dogs, who are commonly referred to as “man’s best friend.”
“I started thinking of this along the lines of where does the psychology of men intersect with how we view animal companions,” Blazina said. “That’s really where the idea of man’s best friend took on a whole new meaning to me. I don’t think it’s really the idea that males love their dogs more or less than females. It’s more of what that attachment bond means in the context of their lives, especially as males age.”
Blazina, who specializes in men’s psychology, turned his research into two books that have been recently published. One, titled “When Man Meets Dog,” serves as a memoir about Blazina’s experiences with Kelsey and his 16-year-old dog, Sadie. The other, “Men And Their Dogs: A New Understanding of Man’s Best Friend,” is a research-based book Blazina co-edited with Lori Kogan of Colorado State University. It’s also the first academic book to focus research on the bond between men and dogs in terms of their positive impact across varying contexts and across the life span from boyhood to old age, Blazina said.
In May, “When Man Meets Dog” was recognized with the National Indie Excellence Book Award in the Men’s Health category.
Over the years, dogs have become more than just faithful pets to many dog owners who consider them a part of their family. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, about 36 percent of all households nationwide have at least one dog. And according to the American Pet Products Association, U.S. pet owners are expected to spend $62.75 billion on their pets, including about $16 billion in veterinary care and $24 billion on food.
Esther Devall, professor and head of the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, said Blazina’s work helps people improve their understanding of the human-dog relationship.
“The work Chris is doing helps us better understand the importance of social bonds to mental health,” Devall said. “People who have close connections to others, whether animal or human, are more likely to report physical and psychological well-being.”
Blazina, who is continuing his research at NMSU with the help of students, said he has found that as men become middle aged, they report more of a stronger sense of emotional attachment to their dogs.
“I asked men to compare their sense of emotional attachment with their closest animal companion, their dog, with their closest human companion,” Blazina said. “About 62 percent of the men said they almost always have a secure type of attachment with their dog. The most common response for the closest human companion was ‘sometimes.’”
Blazina said part of that majority response has to do with how men were raised.
“Part of that has to do with the kind of thing that we’re all aware of, that boys from very early on are taught to conceal emotions especially if it feels like it’s a violation of what it means to be a man,” Blazina said. “You’re not supposed to talk about things that hurt, you’re supposed to hide your pain. I think the end product here is that boys, and then men, oftentimes don’t develop a skill set for being able to connect with the people they would really like to connect with because there’s always a part of them that’s kind of checking to see if the person they’ve opened up to will really understand them, or if they will be criticized.”
With dogs, Blazina said, men don’t feel that sense of caution.
“They can feel like they can just be themselves” with dogs, Blazina said. “Even if it’s just for a few moments, that’s a few moments that are in stark comparison to the rest of their day-to-day experience.”
Gaylene Fasenko, an associate professor of animal and range sciences for the College of ACES, said people know very little about the relationship between men and their dogs, and Blazina is one of very few researchers who have examined the importance of that relationship.
“To say that there is a knowledge gap in this specific research area of Human-Animal Interaction (HAI) is an understatement; the gap is more like a chasm,” said Fasenko, whose research interest is focused on the human-dog bond.
“Stringent traditional male roles imposed by society can create a great deal of psychological stress for many men,” Fasenko said. “Particularly in western cultures men are expected to be physically and emotionally strong, and to not talk about their feelings or seek any form of psychological support. In this scenario, man’s best friend can become a safe haven; a companion that men can openly talk to and show love. Dr. Blazina’s research on the importance of this emotional connection between men and their dogs is groundbreaking.”
“Eye on Research” is a weekly feature provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Adriana Chavez of University Communications.