Senses

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4 min read

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Can Dogs Help with Mental Health?

Senses

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4 min read

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Can Dogs Help with Mental Health?

Introduction

If you've ever LOLed watching viral videos of dogs and cats and their mischievous antics, you'll know that pets have a unique talent for lifting our moods. However, what you might not know is that owning a dog can produce a whole lot of other potential benefits for our mental health.

Dogs can reduce stress levels, encourage us to get out and get active, help us meet new people, and offer unconditional love and companionship 24/7. There are even specially trained mental health therapy dogs that assist people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), social anxiety, and a range of other issues.

Of course, before rushing out and getting yourself a dog, it's essential to make sure you're ready for the responsibility and commitment of pet parenthood.

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Evidence that dogs help improve our mental health

Dogs of all shapes and sizes have an uncanny knack for picking up on how their owners are feeling. When you're happy and excited, it rubs off on your dog; if you're feeling sad and depressed, your dog's mood may change to match your own as they try to find a way to bring some happiness back into your day.

With this in mind, the signs that your dog is responding to your emotions and helping you cope with mental illness are many and varied. For some, it could be an affectionate lick, a head nudging your knee, or even jumping into your lap for a cuddle when you're feeling down. For others, your dog may try to lift your spirits and get you moving, bouncing and jumping around with tail wagging furiously and practically insisting that you take them for a walk immediately!

Of course, it's unlikely that our furry friends realize the profound effects they can have on our mental wellbeing. Instead, they're masters at reading body language and facial expressions and then finding ways to give us the love, support, and daily dose of happiness we need.

A brief history of animal-assisted therapy

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Dogs may have been by our side for thousands of years, but it's only in fairly recent times that we've started to become increasingly aware of the many mental health benefits our furry friends can provide. The first records of using animal-assisted therapy to help with mental illness date back to 1792 in England, where patients at the York Retreat were allowed to wander the grounds among a small population of domestic animals.

In the 1800s, Florence Nightingale also noted the therapeutic benefits of animals, observing that small pets helped reduce anxiety in children and adults living in psychiatric institutions. Fast forward to the 1930s, and "the father of psychoanalysis,” Sigmund Freud, started using his favorite Chow Chow, Jofi, during his psychotherapy sessions. Freud believed that Jofi could not only pick up on a patient's level of tension but also facilitate communication with the patient.

Then, in the early 1960s, child psychotherapist Boris Levinson discovered that one of his patients, a nonverbal 9-year-old boy, started to communicate when Jingles, Levinson's pet dog, sat with them during psychotherapy sessions. After observing similar results in other patients, Levinson wrote Pet-Oriented Child Psychotherapy and set animal-assisted therapy on the path to achieving the credibility and widespread awareness it enjoys in the modern world.

Today, we now know that dogs can help people suffering from anxiety, depression, and a range of other mental health issues, so your four-legged friend is much more than just a pretty face and a wagging tail.

The science of dogs helping with mental health

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There's a wealth of scientific research into the benefits dogs can have on our mental health, and if we tried to mention all of it here we'd quickly run out of space!

One of the most famous studies was done by Alan Beck and Aaron Katcher. These two researchers measured what happens physically when a person pats a friendly and familiar dog, discovering that the person's blood pressure dropped, their heart rate slowed, their breathing became more regular, and their muscle tension relaxed. All of these are telltale signs of reduced stress.

Another fascinating piece of research was completed in 1998 when a study examined 230 hospitalized psychiatric patients to determine whether an animal-assisted therapy session would reduce anxiety levels. There was a significant effect on the patients who participated in animal-assisted therapy, which brought about a reduction in anxiety levels for those with mood and psychiatric disorders.

And the scientific evidence doesn't stop there. There's also evidence to suggest that canine-assisted psychotherapy can:

In other words, dogs have a very remarkable impact on our mental wellbeing indeed.

Training dogs to help with mental health

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Much of the time, the mental health benefits our pets provide occur as something of a coincidence — simply by having and caring for a dog, our lives are greatly enriched. However, if you think your dog could help others battling mental health problems, you might want to consider completing a training course to help your pooch become a therapy dog.

Several reputable organizations around the nation provide the training support you and your pet need to become a therapy dog team and start visiting patients in facilities, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals. However, you'll need to make sure your dog is well suited to such a role before getting started.

Therapy dogs should be naturally calm and gentle animals, and be friendly and affectionate towards strangers. They also need to be able to adapt to and feel comfortable in a wide variety of settings, often surrounded by a host of new sights, sounds, smells, and people. 

But if your dog is suited to this type of work, it's a rewarding way to share the many benefits of our four-legged friends with people who are doing it tough. Find out if your pup is suited to therapy work by looking for these 5 signs your dog makes a good therapy dog. You might also want to find out what a day in the life of a therapy dog looks like before deciding whether it's a good fit for you and your pup.

Need help training the skills your pet needs to become a therapy dog? Book an in-home training session with a 5-star dog trainer on Wag! today.

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By a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk

Published: 09/30/2022, edited: 09/30/2022

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