Can Your Pet Reject You?
All people have a need for social connection. This need to belong can be as strong as our drives to eat, drink, and sleep. However, these needs do not have to be met by humans. Pets can fulfill our sense of belonging just as television and book characters can. These relationships with non-humans are called “parasocial relationships.” But while fictional characters are required to stay on our screens or in the pages of books for as long as we want them to, pets have their own free will.
It can feel pretty lousy when you reach out for your pet after a bad day, and they flee. We know people can reject us and make us feel bad, but we expect our pets—dogs and cats especially—to be different. They’re supposed to be loyal and loving, no matter what. If pets are supposed to provide unconditional love, what does it mean when they don’t want to?
How Does Pet Rejection Affect People?
To answer this question, I conducted a few studies. In the first one, we had college students come into a laboratory setting with the expectation that they would get to interact with a dog. A research assistant told them that they would bring one of the participant’s articles of clothing for the dog to smell before allowing them to interact.
Unbeknownst to the participants, there was no dog in the lab that day. Instead, I had previously filmed videos of a dog interacting with an article of clothing inside a bag. Participants saw one of two videos. In the Interest video, the dog smelled the bag and seemed interested in what was inside, but then the experimenter said they couldn’t interact with the dog because the owner forgot about an important appointment and had to leave. In the Rejection video, the dog barely looked at the bag before whining and walking to the door, and the experimenter said they couldn’t interact with the dog because he had a bad reaction to their smell. This same method was adapted from studies in which the “other” was another human rather than an animal. We wanted to see whether being “rejected” by a dog had the same impact as in studies where the rejecter was a human.
Being Rejected by a Dog Hurts!
People who had been “rejected” by the dog felt much worse than those who couldn’t meet the dog for reasons unrelated to them. They felt bad generally, felt bad about themselves, and even perceived their lives as being less meaningful. These reactions echoed the reports of people who were rejected by humans in the previous studies. However, unlike in human studies, they did not report feeling increased aggression towards the dog who rejected them.
I also directly compared how people feel after being rejected by pets compared to humans. American residents completed a survey online in which they wrote about either a time they felt rejected by a person, rejected by a pet, or their most recent trip to the grocery store. I found that people who wrote about being rejected by a pet or a human felt much worse than those who wrote about going to the grocery store. Whether rejected by a pet or a human, people felt more negative and less positive emotions, felt like they belonged less, had lower self-esteem, felt less meaning in their lives, and perceived less control over their lives compared to those who wrote about their trip to the grocery store.
Both Bad and Good News?
It’s sad to think that we are vulnerable in this way, but at the same time it’s comforting to know we are not alone. When my dog jumps off our three-seater couch rather than cuddle, I know now that my reaction is not uncommon. Just as people tend to feel bad when they are rejected by their friends, they also can feel bad when rejected by their pets. Pets can provide amazing interactions and fulfill us in ways sometimes even humans cannot. However, we as pet owners should also understand that sometimes, they too need their space.
For Further Reading
Aydin, N., Krueger, J., Fischer, J., Hahn, D., Kastenmuller, A., Frey, D., & Fischer, P. (2012). “Man’s best friend:” How the presence of a dog reduces mental distress after social exclusion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48, 446-449. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.09.011
McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1239-1252. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024506
Richman, S. B. (2020). Man’s best friend?: The effects of being rejected by a pet. Journal of Clinical and Social Psychology, 39(6), 519-543.
Stephanie B. R. Rothman formerly published under the name of Richman. She is an Assistant Professor at Baldwin Wallace University, where her research focuses on social rejection, the self-concept, and close relationships. Her dog, Zephyr, is an 11-year-old Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier.