- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
The struggles of coping with depression, anxiety, acute stress and trauma, and overall poor mental health can negatively affect a person’s relationships, work, physical wellness, and overall sense of well-being.
The good news, however, is that many mental disorders are treatable—or, at the very least, manageable. And, in a major win for pets and pet lovers, studies and research show that pets can have a profoundly positive effect on a person’s mental state.
Below, we gathered the research and spoke with the experts to explore some of the many ways having a dog is one of the easiest and most fulfilling ways to stay mentally fit.
Dogs Keep Us Active, Boosting Our Confidence and Opportunities for Social Interactions
“Dogs need to be walked, and puppies need to be socialized,” says Sharon Wachsler, a certified professional dog trainer and the founder of At Your Service Dog Training in western Massachusetts. She has found that dogs help her clients leave the house more often, whether for a walk around the block, a hike, or an energetic romp at the park.
Studies support this; in one, dog owners walked, on average, about three times as much as their dog-free neighbors.
While exercise is beneficial to our physical health, it also supports our mental health. Exercise lowers your blood pressure and increases the release of endorphins that help us to feel good.
Over the long term, exercise further aids in mental health by building confidence, creating opportunities for more social interaction, and offering healthy coping mechanisms for dealing with the stress of life.
Dogs Reduce Anxiety, Stress, and Traumatic Memories
The struggle of everyday activities like going to the grocery store or riding on public transportation is what drives many of Wachsler’s clients to consider a service animal.
“Many of our clients have PTSD, anxiety, or other issues that can be overwhelming when around a lot of people or sensory stimulation,” she says. “Just having the dog to focus on helps them feel less anxious and more grounded.”
Dr. Carly Claney, a Licensed Clinical Psychologist at Relational Psych in Seattle, Washington, echoes these thoughts. “For individuals with emotional trauma and PTSD, pets can provide a sense of safety and security,” she says. “They can offer a calming presence and help with emotional regulation, which can be particularly beneficial during times of distress.”
Engaging with animals in a therapeutic setting has been shown to lessen the experience of PTSD symptoms like anxiety, depression, and flashbacks of the traumatic event. “Some animals can even be trained to note when you are experiencing panic or other symptoms and can help you become aware if you start to dissociate,” Claney says.
Dogs Lessen Feelings of Loneliness, Alienation, and Isolation
Of all the brain chemicals released when interacting with pets, oxytocin, also known as the “love” hormone, is particularly important to the human-pet bond. It promotes an attachment not unlike that of a parent and child. In fact, when dogs and humans occupy the same family unit, research shows that many dog owners unquestionably consider their dog a family member whose status is consistent with human relatives.
This may be because dogs (and other pets) don’t inflict the politics, dramas, guilt, and other draining forces that people sometimes inflict on others—forces that can contribute to depression, anxiety, and stress and cause feelings of loneliness and isolation in some settings.
“The dog loves their person, [and] sees them as the best and most important person in the world.” says Wachsler. “This, in itself, is nourishing to the soul and meaningful to many of our clients.”
Dr. Claney adds that “caring for a pet can also help individuals build social bonds with other pet owners, which can lead to increased social support and a sense of community.”
Dogs Provide Comfort and Companionship
Research shows that just petting a dog (or cat) can make us feel good. It’s been found to increase endorphins, oxytocin, and dopamine while reducing cortisol (the stress hormone) and blood pressure. All together, that means that time spent with your pet leaves you less stressed, more bonded, and more happy.
Wachsler sees this all the time with her clients and their dogs. Often, it’s the pups who initiate comforting contact with their owners.
“Sometimes it really does seem that the dog is doing this out of a sense of empathy and care for the handler’s distress,” she says. “Other times, I think the dog just likes the contact and petting. Regardless, it is often very helpful for handlers in reducing their anxiety, being more present in their bodies, and self-regulating.”
Dogs Provide a Sense of Purpose
Just caring for a dog can help to increase a person’s self-worth, Wachsler says. “Even when [the person] can barely care for themselves or meet their own basic needs, they will always meet the dog’s basic needs. This is a source of pride for some.”
When we adopt a pet or a service dog, we commit ourselves to their care. Every pet has basic daily needs that require human assistance, which makes people feel necessary and important in the life of another creature. This simple idea—being needed—is a powerful way to re-anchor a person’s place in the world when they’ve been blown off course by the effects of mental struggles.
Dr. Claney says that “caring for a pet can give a feeling of fulfillment and satisfaction,” and can help with what she calls “activation,” meaning that “their needs for feeding, exercise, and care can be helpful in regulating your routines and helping you care for yourself too.”
Dogs Help Us Establish Healthy Routines
While dogs can’t read a clock, they are surprisingly good at knowing when it’s time for dinner. Many dogs thrive on routine, with established times for food, exercise, play, and more.
Humans thrive on this daily structure as well. A strong routine reduces the stress associated with decision-making throughout the day, helps us to sleep better, allows us to take time for relaxation, and even supports better physical health with a more consistent approach to exercise and meals.
Dogs Help Us Sleep Better
Anyone who has been grumpy after a restless night can attest to the impact of sleep on mental well being. A good night’s rest is essential at promoting good cognition and reducing stress, but sleep can suffer alongside poor mental health.
Wachsler says that for “clients with insomnia or nightmares due to PTSD, just having a dog in the room with them allows them to sleep more.” Recent research from the Mayo Clinic revealed that sleeping with dogs in the bedroom doesn’t appear to negatively impact the sleep of their pet parents, and might even benefit it.
Dogs are also showing promising signs of as a valid method of treatment in patients with sleep apnea and other obstructive sleep disorders.
Dogs Are a Source of Support for Marginalized Communities
For the LGBTQ community, mental health is a topic of particular concern. 2022 data from non-profit organization The Trevor Project indicates higher-than-average rates of anxiety and depression in young people who identify as LGTBQ.
Even more alarming, nearly half of youth surveyed had thought about taking their own lives in the previous year. The numbers are even higher for kids who are nonbinary or transgender. Anti-trans legislation, the threat (or experience) of violence, and a lack of gender-affirming support at home and school all stand out as contributing factors.
Providing unconditional acceptance
Pets can’t remedy or change the harmful experiences many LGBTQ kids—and adults—will experience. However, they often provide a positive counterbalance to the negativity.
“Pets can provide a sense of unconditional love and acceptance to LGBTQ individuals who may have experienced rejection or discrimination from their families, friends, or society,” says Ann Russo, a queer therapist who specializes in helping marginalized communities. Pets can offer a safe space for LGBTQ individuals to be themselves without fear of judgment, and provide emotional support during difficult times, such as coming out or dealing with discrimination.”
Sharon Wachsler, who also identifies as queer and frequently works with LGBTQ clients, agrees. “Dogs (and other pets) don’t care at all how we dress, what we look like, and what pronouns we use. I think the unconditional love and sense of ‘mattering’ and belonging to another being really makes a huge difference.”
Wachsler and Russo both say isolation and loneliness are common in the LGBTQ experience, but dogs can help break through those walls. For Russo, that means connecting individual members of the LGBTQ community to their “families of choice”—close relationships that fill the gap left by estranged or unsupportive biological families. Pets become members of a person’s chosen family, and they encourage broader connections, too.
“LGBTQ individuals who may feel isolated or marginalized in certain social settings can find common ground and build relationships with other pet owners in LGBTQ-friendly spaces, such as LGBTQ-friendly parks or pet events.” Russo explains. “Pets can facilitate social interactions, create opportunities for new friendships and support networks, and alleviate feelings of loneliness or alienation.”
The Role of Therapy, Service, and Emotional Support Animals
In most individual therapy sessions, the patient and the therapist are the only ones in the room. However, for clients working with Dr. Cristy Russo of Nona Neuropsychology in St. Cloud, Florida, they’re joined by Kevin, a Golden Retriever and yellow Lab mix. Available to offer comfort and support to patients, Kevin’s expertise comes from a mix of training and instinct.
“He’s trained to stay in his own little place, and if people want him to come near them, they can call to him,” Dr. Russo says. “But he does occasionally pick up on signals of people when they’re feeling overwhelmed or have some strong emotions. He’ll pick up on that sometimes even before I do and he’ll get up and come over.”
Kasia Ciszewski is a licensed therapist at Charleston Counseling Services in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. She began bringing her late dog Raspberry to client sessions about five years ago. Raspberry, a certified pet therapy dog, “provided so much comfort for my clients,” she says. “Some of my more dissociative and anxious clients would often get on the floor and pet her or lay next to her.”
Both Russo and Ciszewski agree that having a dog in the room helps patients to feel comfortable and calm. This often translates into a more meaningful therapy session.
Therapy dogs like Raspberry are different, however, than other mental health support dogs, including emotional support animals and service animals. Raspberry is trained to tolerate and provide emotional support to a lot of different people in different settings, but an emotional support animal can be any companion animal from lizards to dogs to horses. Their function is to essentially provide a regular.and reliable source of emotional support and comfort to one person.
Service animals are dogs of any breed or size who are trained to perform a particular task related to a person’s disability, such as a diabetic alert dog or a dog trained to help individuals with PTSD. As we detail in our article, “The Difference Between an Emotional Support Animals and a Service Dog,” service dogs “are trained to perform a function, or do a job, that his or her owner can’t perform on their own due to a physical, intellectual, or emotional disability.”
The benefits of therapy, emotional support, and service dogs in supporting human mental health can not be understated. Read on for a few links to some of the many articles on the Rover blog about the incredible role these animals play in countless lives across the country.
Depression, anxiety, and stress are part of the human condition, and bound to affect most people at some point or another. Luckily, one of the best ways to boost your mental health comes in a furry, four-pawed package.
As we’ve seen, dogs can make a significant contribution to your mental health, offering the joys of companionship, comfort, and purpose. Plus, they do it without judgement, and without the unfortunate stigmas that often come along with mental illness. Good boys and girls, indeed!
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- Dutiful Therapy Doodles Give Cuddles and Comfort to Seattle Firefighters
- Mental Health and Pets: The Complete Guide
- School District Has Its Own Pack of Therapy Dogs Because Dogs Make Everything Better