Dog owners everywhere realize the immediate joys that come with sharing their lives with these furry friends. Most of us remain unaware, however, of the physical and mental health benefits that dogs bring quite naturally.
Only quite recently have scientists explored the benefits of the human-canine bond. Studies show that dogs can reduce stress, anxiety and depression, ease loneliness, encourage exercise and playfulness, and even improve cardiovascular health.
As we celebrate National Dog Day worldwide on Aug. 26, we pay homage to the therapeutic benefits of dogs, whose nonjudgmental and loving disposition help patients feel more calm and open along the road to better mental health.
Many patients with mental illness benefit from dog therapy, and it’s easy to see why. Dog therapy has been tried and true for patients with dementia, Alzheimer’s, depression, PTSD, autism and more.
Dogs have evolved to become acutely attuned to human behavior and emotion. They are able to understand many of the words we use, but they’re even better at interpreting our tone of voice, body language and gestures. And like any good human friend, a loyal dog will look into your eyes to gauge your emotional state and try to understand what you’re thinking and feeling.
Dogs don’t have to say a word for you to know how they feel about you. A wag of a tail says it all. Dogs can serve a far greater purpose than just being the family pets.
Dogs can provide several benefits to people of all ages, even after limited interactions. This is why they’re often used in therapy and rehabilitation settings, especially those related to substance abuse and mental health.
With their presence alone, dogs can:
- Reduce stress and anxiety: Petting or positively interacting with a dog can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol. According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets can help reduce childhood anxiety, including social anxiety and separation anxiety.
- Reduce depression and loneliness: People report feeling less lonely in the presence of animals — especially dogs. They keep us anchored in the present and distract us from negative or anxious thoughts.
- Create social opportunities: In a study at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, 65 strangers stopped to speak with someone walking a dog, while only three people stopped to talk to that same person walking alone.
- Provide a sense of purpose: By owning a dog, we play an important role in their life by feeding and caring for them. These responsibilities can keep our minds occupied with something constructive, and remove any feelings of negativity.
- Lower blood pressure levels: Studies show that pet-owning patients with high blood pressure managed to keep their blood pressure lower in times of mental stress than patients without pets.
- Encourage exercise: People need daily exercise for optimum health. Dogs should also exercise regularly (daily, if possible), as long as their age and health status allow it. Daily exercise can provide mental and physical benefits for both of you, including improving cardiovascular health and reducing anxiety.
Therapy dogs are trained to be gentle and friendly and to accept strangers hugging them or petting them. They are patient and unbothered by children who tug at their fur or adults who want the smaller ones to sit in their laps.
While therapy dogs live in people’s homes, they can also visit a variety of settings, including retirement or nursing homes, schools, hospice homes and hospitals.