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How Dogs Improve Your Mental Health

There’s a reason why people say dogs are a (hu)man’s best friend.

If you own one of these furry creatures, you already know why. Dogs are usually friendly and comforting. They offer a special form of companionship. Many pet owners wouldn’t hesitate to say they love their dog, and that their dog is a valuable member of their family.

In the U.S., more than 64 million households have a dog. This makes it the number one country, worldwide, for dog ownership.

And during these past few months, during COVID-19, even people in the U.S. decided to bring home these canine companions. According to CNN, the COVID pandemic has resulted in an “unprecedented” increase in dog adoptions. Applications for dog adoption surged by 1,000 percent at an adoption center in New York City in March 2020 – the peak of the outbreak.

Dogs and Your Health

Research shows that dogs might even improve the health and wellbeing of their owners. According to Harvard Health, there are several physical health benefits of owning a dog.

Studies show that:

  • Owning a dog is associated with decreased risk of heart disease
  • Dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-owners
  • Being around a dog generally leads to lower stress levels

The last statistic is especially valuable. It’s the reason why dogs (and other animals, such as horses) have been used in mental health treatment for years.

Dogs Improve Your Mental Health

Numerous studies have shown the positive effect of dogs on human mental health. When it comes to formally incorporating dogs in therapy, the intervention is formally known as dog-assisted therapy or canine-assisted therapy.

According to studies, dog-assisted therapy can:

In one literature review, dogs reduced levels of depression, anxiety, and PTSD in military veterans and victims of child abuse. After several sessions of canine-assisted therapy, adults reported better self-functioning and a decrease in negative symptoms. However, since levels of statistical significance were somewhat low, researchers concluded that dogs can be used as a supplementary treatment option for trauma.

Dogs can help treat mental health issues, and improve emotional health, even in an informal setting. Studies show petting a dog reduces cortisol levels and other stress markers in humans. That’s why schools, hospitals, and hospices often bring in therapy dogs to comfort patients. For students, some schools use dogs during stressful periods of time, such as during exams.

Dogs Reduce Trauma

Dog-assisted therapy is especially valuable in treating trauma. One study published in Children and Youth Services Review found that dogs helped treat PTSD symptoms in Israeli teens who were victims of physical or sexual abuse. Compared to the control group, the treatment group saw a “rapid decline of the level of PTSD” after 12 sessions of dog-assisted therapy, which took place in a school setting.

Another study found similar effects in adolescents in the U.S. who experienced childhood sexual abuse. More than 150 of these children, age 7 to 17, participated in group therapy at a mental health treatment clinic. Those in the group with therapy dogs showed significant decreases in anxiety, depression, anger, PTSD, and dissociation. When therapeutic stories were told from the dog’s perspective during session, the positive effects were even greater.

A third study incorporated dogs at a nonprofit treatment center for children. A dog handler, working with a therapist, integrated therapy with dog-training. The duo asked the children to talk to the dog about personal traumatic experiences. Although the sample size was small (9 participants age 4-12), the study showed that the therapy dogs increased social-emotional learning for these children.

For Comfort, Dogs Are Comparable to Humans

Several researchers found the presence of a dog is comparable to the presence of another human being, when it comes to comfort. Researchers asked 80 participants to watch a traumatic film. They randomly assigned the participants into four groups, each with a different form of accompaniment during the film: a friendly dog, stuffed dog, a friendly human, or nothing. Then they measured heart rate, cortisol levels, and blood pressure.

Those who watched the film with a dog reported lower anxiety and negative affect after the film, compared to the stuffed-dog group or the alone-group. Those who watched the film with a friendly human had similar results to the dog group. The researchers concluded that dogs can reduce stress and anxiety in humans during a traumatic situation.

Alyson Orcena, Program Director at Evolve Vanalden Comprehensive DBT Residential Treatment Center, sees how this is true even on an anecdotal level.

“Even from just my experience with my dog, I can see just how much dogs are sensitive to our emotions and pick up on them.  A lot of times they’re responsive to us in interesting ways. If you feel sad, they may come up to you and cuddle. If you’re anxious, your dog might become anxious as well.”

Dogs can serve, in Orcena’s opinion, “as a safe refuge or haven when things are difficult or when interpersonal relationships are challenged… With dogs, it’s an unconditional, very simple type of love. Your bond is solely based on spending time together.”

So, if you own a dog, hug it tightly this National Dog Day.

Celebrate the warmth and love your dog brings to your life – all day and every day.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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