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IWU Psychologist On How 'First Dogs' De-Stress The White House

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Twitter / The First Dogs of the United States
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Major and Champ Biden, the newest four-legged White House occupants, continue a long legacy of pets in the Oval Office.

The White House has two new four-legged occupants: Champ and Major Biden. The German shepherds are good for more than just a feel good story or photo op. They’ll offer special benefits to workers on the Hill.

Illinois Wesleyan University psychology professor Ellen Furlong said the newly-minted first dogs will help President Biden and his staff navigate the stresses and tensions of the current political landscape.

“People who work in places where there are pets around tend to score their workplace as having a greater career satisfaction, better working conditions, better quality of life at work,” Furlong said. “They tend to say that there's better communication and cohesion among groups of workers, more engagement among workers. You can also see dramatic effects of pets on stress.”

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FILE - This Aug. 4, 2010 file photo shows presidential pet Bo climbing the stairs of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md. for a flight to Chicago with President Barack Obama

Furlong said there’s long been anecdotal evidence that being around pets makes people feel better. Now, she said, there’s a large body of research to support that claim: reduced heart rates, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and a drop in blood pressure, for example.

Furlong said pets also can provide the “social lubricant” to bring people together.

“It can be hard sometimes to start conversations with new people, or if there's going to be a tough conversation coming up, it can be hard to start that conversation--and sometimes dogs can help a conversation get started,” she said. “When dogs (are) around, people smile at each other more often. They report a better sense of community. They have more long conversations, and they are more likely to form long-term friendships.”

Pets have become more prevalent in the workplace, with large companies like Amazon, Google, and Ben & Jerry’s letting their employees bring Fido to the office.

Of course, Furlong said, dogs don’t belong in every work setting. Restaurants, for example, have sanitation to consider. There also are cases when co-workers may be allergic to or afraid of dogs.

But Furlong said the White House could benefit even more from the presence of pets than most workplaces, considering how stressful and high stakes the work is.

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Credit AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander, File
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AP Photo/Marcy Nighswander, File
FILE- In this March 19, 1994 file photo, President Bill Clinton's cat Socks peers over the podium in the White House briefing room in Washington.

Major and Champ Biden continue a long legacy of pets in the Oval Office. George H.W. Bush’s dog Millie’s autobiography outsold her presidential owner’s. More recently, Buddy and Socks Clinton, Barney and Miss Beazley Bush, and Bo and Sunny Obama have warmed hearts while roaming the halls of the White House. Furlong said Teddy Roosevelt is even rumored to have had a bear at some point.

All of these companions—from dogs to cats to snakes—made a tough job a little easier, she said.

“When you give people a complicated math problem to solve, they're more likely to be able to solve it well and correctly and quickly with a pet around—the pet doesn't even have to do anything, they're just in the room,” she said.

“So you can imagine that pets in the Oval Office might help reduce stress, and might provide some of that social lubricant that can get people on both sides of the aisle talking to each other.”

Furlong said that sort of social cohesion is critical in a place where people with different perspectives and goals really need to work together.

Ellen Furlong is an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University. She authored an audiobook called “Decoding Dogs: Inside the Canine Mind.” Furlong will teach a course on dog psychology at IWU over the summer. The class is open to the public. More information is available on the university’s website.

  

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.