Can Dogs Help with Mental Illness?

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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 ownership.

Signs of Dogs Helping with Mental Illness

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 highly 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.

Body Language

Your dog's body language could indicate that they're picking up on your mood and responding accordingly. Signs include:
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Jumping up
  • Wag tail
  • Licking
  • Play bowing

Other Signs

Other signs your dog is responding to your mood include:
  • Watching You Intently
  • Showing Affection
  • Matching Your Mood
  • Trying to Engage You in Play
  • Staying by Your Side

The History of Dogs Helping with Mental Illness

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 nine-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 today.

The Science of Dogs Helping with Mental Illness

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 of Purdue University and Aaron Katcher, a psychiatrist from the University of Pennsylvania. 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 241 hospitalized psychiatric patients to determine whether an animal-assisted therapy session would reduce anxiety levels. One group of patients participated in animal-assisted therapy with a dog, while a control group took part in regularly scheduled therapeutic recreation sessions without any animals. 

There was a significant effect on the patients who participated in animal-assisted therapy, which brought about a substantial reduction in anxiety levels for those with mood and psychotic disorders.

Training Dogs to Help with Mental Illness

Much of the time, the mental health benefits our pets provide occur as something of a coincidence — simply by owning 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.

How Dogs Can Help with Mental Illness

  • Dogs reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation.
  • Dogs help reduce stress levels and lower blood pressure.
  • Dogs have calming effects on their owners.
  • Dogs are always there for you, providing unconditional love and support.
  • Dogs are great "icebreakers" and increase social connectedness.
  • Dogs encourage you to stay active, and regular exercise produces many mental health benefits.
  • Dogs require routine and can provide a sense of purpose.