How Dogs Can Help With Mental Health

helloBARK! staff
By helloBARK! staff
Updated on October 06, 2020
Expert Content

Dogs can play an important role in our mental health.

As someone who has struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, my Alaskan Klee Kai provided me with companionship, a purpose in life and lots of love.

Given the challenging time that the world is facing due to COVID-19, dogs have never been more important where mental health is concerned.

Whether you’ve got a trained therapy dog, emotional service animal or a family pet, you’ll can attest to the vital contribution our canine companions can make to our overall wellbeing and staying active.

We spoke to six experts to learn a bit more about how dogs can help with mental health, whether you’re suffering with anxiety, marriage problems or feelings of isolation.

Poodle brings joy to seniors (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Poodle brings joy to seniors (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Dogs Act As Social Lubricants

Russell Hartstein, certified Dog Behaviorist, Trainer, Nutritionist and founder of Fun Paw Care Dog training and behaviorist

There are many studies that show that dogs act as social lubricants and help adults, children and kids who are shy or have disabilities meet and make friends.

So many people love dogs and don’t feel threatened when a friendly well-trained dog is looking to get a pet. When a person has a dog, many people will come over and ask to pet their dog which naturally starts a conversation and a potential friendship.

Some other benefits of dog parenthood are socialization, exercise, understanding a different species, dog training, emotional connection and having a best friend.

However, there are some “drawbacks” or considerations of parenting a dog. A dog’s needs have to be met. It can’t be a one-sided relationship. A parent has to have resources to educate themselves about the species and to have resources to hire professional dog trainers, behaviorists, groomers, dog walkers, dog boarding and vet care for their loved one.

Not to mention it is harder to find appropriate homes due to many HOA’s and apartments being unfriendly to dogs, certain breeds (BSL) and/or certain sized dogs.

Golden Retriever cuddles cat (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Golden Retriever cuddles cat (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Dogs Can Fulfill A Need For Nurturing

Julia Katzman, LMSW, therapist at planyourrecovery.com

Dogs can provide structure in your life – When you get a dog, your life is no longer just about you. There’s now an extra member in your family who is dependent on you for their survival. Dogs provide an extra level of motivation to do tasks like getting out of bed or walking the dog outside that also benefit their human owner.

Dogs can make it easier for their humans to make friends – If you don’t have children, it can be really hard to make friends as an adult. Dogs can help bypass that. I have had clients who have reported a decrease in isolation because they’ve made friends with other dog owners at the dog park, or because they started meeting their neighbors because they walk their dog at a certain time everyday.

Dogs can also help people feel safe – People who have been victims of assault or have PTSD may find that dogs provide not only companionship, but also an extra level of security. We know that dogs have extremely good reaction times, because their senses are sharper than humans’. Therefore, someone who feels that a threat could be immediate at any time can find relief from knowing that they can outsource some of their alertness to their canine companion.

Dogs can fulfill a need for nurturing – Knowing that you are taking care of a living being and watching it thrive feels great. This kind of behavior is hardwired into us. There’s a reason that people describe their dogs as their babies; it’s because we respond to our children in similar way that we respond to our dogs. Having a dog is a very different role than raising a child, but we find them rewarding in some interestingly similar ways.

Golden Retriever helps dog owner work from home (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Golden Retriever helps dog owner work from home (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Pets Encourage Us To Exercise And Lower Our Stress Levels

Philip Tedeschi, human-animal connection expert with Rover.com

I’m a psychotherapist and professional social worker by training and whenever I am trying to offer guidance to someone who might be experiencing stress and the mental health impacts from difficult circumstances, I always start with learning about that person’s social support systems. Social support theory proposes that animals provide both direct and indirect support to humans.

In a direct way, animals act as sources of non-judgmental support and perceived unconditional positive regard. Indirectly, animals act as social lubricants or facilitators of interaction between humans. Not only is a lack of social support one of the strongest predictors of developing numerous health concerns, perceived social support also plays a critical role in the recovery from any number of mental health related challenges.

Lucky for me, as someone who studies the health promoting benefits of animals, I am reminded every day how successful dogs are at being affiliative and getting along with their human and non-human roommates and family members.

The science emerging in the health promoting impact of relationships with dogs has become a convincing reason to have a dog in our lives. Dogs in particular have been shown to help with reducing stress, improved physical wellness, promoting calmness and focus/presence in our daily lives, work and capacity to have healthy relationships with others.

For 10’s of thousands of years, humans and dogs have co-evolved with each other. When a known dog is present, and projecting non-verbal, nurturing signals, part of the human brain knows ‘the camp is safe.’

Dogs, with their superior sensory capabilities in hearing and smell, expanded the sensory alarm radius for their human families dramatically. Deep in our brain, we know that if the dog is relaxed and playfully engaged, we are safe. It stands to reason then, the mere presence of a calm dog will calm us down.

Physical health benefits of pets

Did you know that pet owners have fewer doctors’ appointments than people who don’t have pets? Studies have also shown that pet owners:

• Take fewer days off from work
• Are less likely to take sleep aid medication
• Have better self-reported fitness levels
• Exercise more frequently

But how? The answer involves two main components: pets encourage us to exercise, and pets lower our stress levels. Both of which contribute to better overall mental health.

Even the laziest dog will require you to get off the couch occasionally. Walking and playing with your pet will not only strengthen your body, but it will also boost your energy and raise your self-esteem.

Furthermore, interacting with companion animals can decrease our cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood pressure. Remarkably, simply petting our animals has been scientifically proven to relieve anxiety and lower stress.

Social health benefits of pets

This profound relationship that we share with our pets can benefit us in two major ways: they can banish our loneliness, and they can help us develop some much-needed social skills. One study took a look at the effects that pets have on adults who live alone. It revealed (not surprisingly) that pet owners who lived alone were 36% less likely than non-pet owners to report loneliness.

In our current landscape of social-distancing, this is one stat we’re especially happy to hear about.

Emotional health benefits of pets

A recent Rover.com survey revealed that many pet owners turn to their furry four-legged companion for stress relief. A whopping 86% of participants expressed that spending time with their pets helped take their mind off nail-biting topics like the coronavirus, the economy, and politics.

If you feel your head spinning every time you turn on the news, you may find yourself turning to your dog or cat for comfort. You wouldn’t be alone if you did. 40% of the survey participants admitted they turn to their pet in times of high stress, instead of a significant other (23%) or another family member (13%).

Dogs Satisfy The Basic Human Need For Touch

Chris Norris, Certified Sleep Science Coach and editor-in-chief at sleepstandards.com

As a mental health professional, I believe pets specifically dogs, have an impressive effect on one’s health as it lowers stress levels, relieves tension, depression, and anxiety.

Dogs can understand some of the words we say but are definitely better at understanding the tone of our voice, body language, and gestures. Just like a good friend, they can look into your eyes and see through your emotions.

One of the many reasons why having a dog is therapeutic to humans is that it satisfies the basic human need for touch. Stroking, brushing, massaging a dog instantly soothes and calms a tensed, anxious, and stressed individual. It’s called sensory stress relief.

Having a dog also helps you physically. It makes you set a routine for you to follow, for instance, taking them to walk, hike, run which could also be physically rewarding for you.

For adults who have just retired or kids just moved away, they may need something to occupy their time, and taking care of a dog is the best thing to do as it boosts self-worth.

Dogs are loyal companions, they would protect you at all cost. If you have a dog, no matter how stressed or anxious you are at the end of the day, it will be relieved as soon as you hug your dog.

Copper and Skye (Photo: Phodography)

Copper and Skye (Photo: Phodography / Life With Klee Kai)

Minimize Loneliness

Sadie Cornelius, contributor at caninejournal.com

There are many benefits to owning a dog that go far beyond them just being cute. Dogs can improve our overall health and help us live happier lives. Below are some of the many benefits that humans receive by spending time with our beloved canines.

Reduced Depression – Depression affects roughly 40 million adults. Did you know that owning a dog can help you be happier? Dogs reduce depression and improve your all-around health (as you’ll read below). Many of the items we discuss in this article are proven to help reduce depression as well (more exercise, less loneliness, reduced stress). According to a Wisdom Panel Survey, 99% of dog parents (and 96% of cat parents) said their pet has positively impacted their mental health.

Get Over Rejection Sooner – A study in the journal Anthrozoös asked volunteers about an experience where they felt rejected and then asked them to name a photo of an animal, toy or human. Those who named an animal or toy felt less negatively than those who named a person. People who treat animals or objects like people are more likely to be empathetic and also avoid negativity better. So next time you talk to your dog, know that it’s a good thing and it can help you deal with rejection.

Keep You Exercising – You know your dog needs exercise to be healthy. Spending time at the dog park or walking on your favorite trail are just a couple of ways your pup can stretch its legs. If your dog is getting exercise, that means you’re out and about as well. A Michigan State University study found that those who live with a dog exercise about 30 minutes more per week than those who don’t own a dog.

Not As Lonely – A study in Aging & Mental Health states that older adults who own pets are 36% less likely to say they’re lonely than those without. Loneliness is connected to heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other health risks. Is it safe to say that minimizing loneliness could help you reduce disease and other illness? It certainly seems worth a try, right?

Less Stressed – After 15 to 30 minutes of petting a dog, female volunteers had lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and had a higher level of oxytocin (a happy hormone) after another 1 to 5 minutes. Petting dogs has been shown to lower heart rates, as well.

Keep Your Wits About You – Research from Anthrozoös stated that older, housebound adults who owned dogs or cats were better at paying attention, remembering details and using past experiences to decide how to act than those who didn’t own a pet.

Less Pain – Being around a dog may mean you take fewer pain medications. A study in Anthrozoös states that adults who spent 5 to 15 minutes with a dog after surgery used fewer pain meds than those who didn’t.

Fewer Allergies – Babies who grow up in homes with pets are less likely to develop allergies later in life. The study found that children less than 1-year-old were half as likely to be allergic to the type of animal in their home than those who grew up without a pet in the house. This doesn’t work later in life though, early exposure is key.

Fewer Doctor Visits – A study found that seniors on Medicare who own pets had fewer doctor contacts within a 1-year period than those without pets. This was especially true of dog owners more so than cat, bird and other animal owners.

Other Benefits – Additional benefits of owning a dog include a decrease in your blood pressure, cholesterol levels and triglyceride measures. Lower amounts of these things contribute to improved health.

Copper and Skye (Photo: Phodography)

Copper and Skye (Photo: Phodography / Life With Klee Kai)

Dogs Bring People Together

Elisabeth Goldberg, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Dogs are companion animals, and we attach to them naturally. When couples or families are fighting, they can’t see eye to eye, and this creates distance between members. Dogs bring people together through shared attachment, decision-making, time management, responsibility and community.

Mental health is a behavioral presentation of these emotional, mental, cognitive and relational qualities, and introducing a dog into a family or couple system can create new attachment bonds through a shared attachment object, the dog. Dogs require training, attention, routine, structure, play and affection.

I am a dog owner and my husband and I have benefited greatly from taking care of dogs. When we met, we each had a dog. It was beautiful to see the process of how our dogs attached to each other, resembling the integration of step children in blended families. Getting a dog is an opportunity for new connection and strong bonding through an attachment object, a dog.

I have actually encouraged fighting couples to get a dog as a way to resolve the trivial complaints partners have with each other that add up to large blow-outs. It has proven very successful in helping partners see past their differences and come together as a strong unit.

Getting a dog is like adopting a child. Each partner creates a many new relationships that strengthen attachment: special relationships to the animal, to the each partner’s relationship with the animal, to each partner now that there is shared attention with a new member, and to the relationship itself as it has expanded to include a shared attachment object. This is obviously a very clinical way of viewing dogs as attachment objects, but research shows that although a new member of a family system can bring about stress and illustrate how each partner adjusts to change and added responsibility, it is an opportunity for more appreciation for how the partner contributes to the relationship by caring for a new member.

Couples can couple with dogs together, enhancing intimacy and affection. They can talk about schedules like bathroom breaks and meal times, promotion communication skills through shared decision-making and collaborative time-management, and encourage emotional support between partners as they both adjust to the change of a new family member. Seeing how each partner deals with stress, change, added responsibility and shared attention can magnify problems in the relationship but it is also an opportunity to resolve conflicts, increase bonding, improve communication skills, strength the commitment to each other through a new family member, and observe the style that each partner shows nurturant even and caring for another being. This is a valuable opportunity to predict how each partner will adapt to parenthood.

A Dog Can Bring Happiness Into Your Life

Dr Brian J Bourquin, Founder and Chief Medical Officer of Boston Veterinary Clinic

Having a dog by definition means you cannot be “shut in”. Having a companion makes you participate in society and within your community: you leave your home to walk your dog, care for your dog and in other words having a dog makes you change your surroundings and interact with people. Your companion depends on you so you become reliable.

Having a dog will bring love into your home, will provide comfort and company for someone who may be lonely. Having a dog can improve your mental health and well being. We humans domesticated dogs to live with us, dogs are our companions, we chose them, loving and caring for a dog can be relatively easy. Most dogs give you unconditional love.

A dog can bring happiness into your life. How can you not feel happy when your companion greets you after a long, tiring or perhaps stressful day? It has been proven that even petting a dog can release oxytocins and can bring down ones blood pressure.

We notice that many of our elderly clients have particularly strong bonds with their dogs. These companions are what gets them out of the bed in the morning, their dog get them moving and gets them out of the house. A dog can prolong life for an elderly person, especially for those who are retired and live alone.

With most children, having a dog is a great way to learn responsibility and learn how to take care of others.