The phrase "man's best friend" has a cute ring of exaggeration about it. But for men in their middle age, the phrase might be closer to the truth than we think.
American clinical psychologist Chris Blazina has done research that has found up to 42 per cent of middle-aged men are more likely to turn to their dog for emotional support in tough times than anyone else in their social circles.
In Dr Blazina's view this happens because "men are pretty reluctant to seek various forms of help and treatment — whether that is in the medical realm or just among their social network".
But it's not all bad news, a strong and fulfilling bond with a four-legged friend might help isolated men reconnect with people.
Why are men less able to share with their human peers?
"I think it has a lot to do with the way that we're socialised," says Dr Blazina.
People tend to cull their friendship groups as they get older and settle down. Who has the time to keep all those social plates spinning when work, family and financial commitments increase?
But Dr Blazina says it's quite likely that this behaviour goes against our nature: "Most psychologists think that we really are hard-wired to make and sustain connections throughout our whole life, not just in the formative years."
Dr Blazina suggests that our move away from this hard-wiring is all to do with the way we are now socialised — in this period of greater focus on individualism. He also says the pressure of socialisation, where this issue is concerned, weighs heavier on men.
"Even in the [current] period, where folks think in terms of more enlightened freedom in terms of the way males can be, there's still a lot of research, both in the US and abroad, that really focuses on the idea that we're still really constricted."
Traditional definitions of masculine identity — stoicism, independence, strength — abide, especially when the men in question reach middle age.
The results of this social trend go beyond simple frustration. According to Dr Blazina, "middle-aged men and beyond are really at risk for a lot of different things, whether it's depression or anxiety or even potential suicide".
John, a semi-retired farmer, has always had dogs in his life:
"My last dog, Ned, was a fairly typical Kelpie-cross, being a useful sheep dog when needed but also part of the family when not working. He lived till he was about 16 or so and has only recently gone. Over the years, some of these dogs surprised me with skills not expected of them … Dogs in my life have always been there.
Dr Blazina agrees that dogs offer their owners a form of judgement and risk-free support.
"They do offer us a constant presence," he says. "Freud talked about this a long time ago. He was a big fan of dogs himself — that dogs offer something that human beings can't, and that's a pure type of love."
"And we can trust them as being really straight shooters too," he continues.
"Another Freud quote here is that they 'love their friends and bite their enemies'. When somebody is that straight with you, you really trust their connection … 'Wow, I must be okay if my dog likes me'."
Learning from our dogs
Dr Blazina's focus on the psychology of pet ownership grew out of personal experience, specifically his relationship with two pooches: Kelsey and Sadie.
Both dogs have passed on now but Dr Blazina considers them an integral part of his personal growth.
Having recently married and become a father, Dr Blazina considers the meaningful relationships he had with his dogs as key to unlocking that intimate part of himself.
"That relational part of me — to turn into a partner and eventually a father too — a lot of that foundation is built on those relational connections I've had with Kelsey and Sadie."
So rather than being a crutch, Dr Blazina thinks an emotional bond with a pet can actually act as a positive and safe testing ground for someone who, perhaps, struggles to open up and share their feelings.
Dr Blazina says the passing of his dogs, while incredibly traumatic, was a particularly growth-inducing period.
"The research suggests that a loss of an animal companion, a dog, can rival or if not surpass that of a friend, family member or partner. So, there's a really significant loss there," he says.
"There's a gift in that loss if you look for it ... We begin to re-evaluate our lives and maybe we begin to change in a more positive way: the post-traumatic growth.
"And, for some folks, it's a re-prioritisation of life or its bringing forward of the skills and experiences that you've had with your dogs, into the next phase of life."
This story was originally broadcast on ABC RN's Life Matters.