The calming effect of animals on humans is well documented. But how exactly do dogs help with mental health? Here’s a rundown on the benefits provided by canine connection.
Most dog owners will agree the unbridled enthusiasm of a happy pup can lift your mood tenfold. It’s hard not to smile when you’re witness to all that tail wagging, tongue lolling and big goofy doggo grins. And in case the contagious nature of canine contentment wasn’t enough, there is even science to prove that dogs are good for you.
Dogs vs. depression
Pets – and especially dogs – have been shown to reduce anxiety and depression in those who suffer from it. Part of this is due to the simple fact that every pet needs their human. If you’ve ever owned a pet, you will know they don’t take kindly to waiting too long for you to get up and feed them. Living alongside an animal companion that requires frequent attention provides purpose, as well as a sense of responsibility.
Dogs give structure to the dayOwning a pet also helps to establish and keep a routine. A dog will literally get you out of bed (unless you want a wet nose nudging you all morning) and they will also force you out of the house for a walk. This is great for those who suffer from depression, as the fresh air, exercise and the sense of purpose can do wonders for getting out of a funk.
The positive perception of a person who has a friendly animal with them even has a scientific name: the social catalyst effect.
Dogs improve social interactions
While you’re out on that walk, dogs are also great conversation starters. Dog owners love to stop and chat while their pups have a play, providing opportunities to connect with others. This in turn helps to lift spirits and boost a person’s sense of belonging. The positive perception of a person who has a friendly animal with them even has a scientific name: the social catalyst effect. This may be why walking a dog brings smiles from passers-by, even those who don’t have a dog with them.
And when you’re not out walking, dogs provide constant companionship, which is also helpful when you’re down in the dumps. For older people, this companionship can make all the difference. Several studies have shown better health outcomes, social interaction and less depression in ageing people who are dog owners as well as in those who have regular interactions with pups in nursing homes.
Happy hormones and healthy heart rates
Aside from the practicalities, what does living with a dog do to our brains and bodies? Hormones appear to play a huge role in the positive effects of dogs. Studies have shown that petting a dog reduces the stress hormone cortisol and helps to release that old favourite, oxytocin, the same bonding and trust-inducing hormone that is released when a mother feeds a baby.
One such study tested cortisol levels and heart rates in 48 people who were assigned a public speaking task, which involved doing mathematical calculations while being observed by an audience of strangers. Some were paired with a friend, some with a dog they had never met, and some had no one to accompany them. Out of all the participants, those who had the dog beside them had the lowest heart rates and cortisol levels and also reported feeling less anxious.
Working dogs work
Service dogs have been helping their humans for decades, due to their ability to be trained for the specific needs of those with health issues. Studies on children with autism have shown that the presence of a dog while in occupational therapy will result in greater language use and social interaction from the child. Similarly, a study that paired dogs with adults who suffer from PTSD showed a reduction in the severity of PTSD symptoms when compared to a group who were given the same therapy but without the placement of a companion dog.
For the dog owners out there, we’re likely speaking to the converted but it’s nice to know there is science to back us up when we say our pup is a lifesaver. Give yours a scratch behind the ears, a belly rub, or a tasty treat today – for the sake of your health, of course!
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