There's no shortage of reasons why dogs make wonderful companions. They're loyal, they offer unconditional love, they bring joy to each and every day and they never answer back.
Those are all fantastic qualities for any creature that claims to be man's best friend, but there's another important factor that dogs can add to their list of amazing talents — our furry friends can also help us cope with social anxiety. Dogs help us get out of the house, get active, meet new people and overcome social barriers, and have been shown to have numerous benefits for our mental health.
Let's take a closer look at how your pooch can help you cope with social anxiety and live a happier, more fulfilling life.
Signs Your Dog is Monitoring Your Mood
Dogs are famous for their uncanny knack of picking up on human moods and emotions. When you're happy, your dog is often happy too; if you're feeling blue, your pooch might try to cheer you up with her mischievous antics or might just offer you a (furry) shoulder to cry on. Scientists have even proven that dogs can read human emotions, so it's no great surprise that your pet often seems to know exactly what to do to suit the way you're feeling in any given situation.
A dog that's focused on your emotions will be watching you intently. If you're the center of his universe, you can bet that he'll be paying close attention to you, what you're doing and how you're feeling. He may tilt his head as he concentrates on deciphering your emotions, or just sit back and listen closely to get an accurate gauge of the situation.
Your dog's response will then depend on your own emotions. If you're happy and relaxed, your dog might try to engage you in a game or subtly "suggest" going for a walk. If you're sad or depressed, he might snuggle in for a cuddle or treat you to a sloppy kiss. And if you're feeling anxious, stressed or uncomfortable, he might give you a reassuring nudge, stay close by your side, or try to get between you and any perceived danger.
The History of Dogs Helping With Social Anxiety
While our understanding of mental health and the appreciation of its importance has come a long way in recent years, we're still learning new things all the time. Dogs were used as therapy animals as far back as the 16th century, but the practice really took off during the 20th century.
In 1919, the US military used therapy dogs to provide therapeutic intervention for psychiatric patients at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C, but it wasn't until the latter decades of the last century that using dogs as therapy animals became much more widespread. In 1976, registered nurse Elaine Smith started a training program to develop dogs to visit hospitals, nursing homes and the like. Having noticed how positively patients responded to visits from a Golden Retriever, Smith was keen to train more therapy dogs for service.
Today, therapy dogs perform a wide range of important roles, from visiting the elderly in nursing homes and patients in hospitals to providing support for children with autism and a variety of mental health issues. There are even organizations that specialize in training support animals for people with social anxiety disorder, reducing stress, lowering blood pressure, breaking down social barriers and providing unconditional love.
The Science of Dogs Helping With Social Anxiety
Social Anxiety Disorder is an anxiety disorder that causes an intense fear of social situations requiring interaction with other people It affects approximately 15 million American adults, making it one of the nation's top mental health concerns, and therapy dog organizations train animals specifically to help people with Social Anxiety Disorder.
However, even if you only suffer from mild anxiety in social settings, dogs can still be immensely helpful. There's a pretty substantial body of scientific evidence on the many benefits dogs can provide for the mental health and general wellbeing of their owners, including:
- Reducing stress and blood pressure
- Helping people respond better to stressful situations
- Providing companionship and easing loneliness
- Encouraging you to get outside and get active
- Providing more opportunities for social interaction
In short, our canines are basically four-legged mental health professionals with an impressively long list of skills.
How a Dog Could Help Reduce Your Social Anxiety
If we decided to list all the studies and scientific results showing the mental health benefits of dogs, we'd run out of space pretty quickly. Instead, let's look at the practical ways a dog can help you live a happier and healthier life.
- Dogs get you out of the house. Dogs need exercise and so do people. It's hard to say no to an enthusiastic pooch who's super keen on going for a walk, getting outside will lift your mood and give you a much-needed dose of Vitamin D.
- Dogs encourage you to get active. Whether you're taking your pooch for a walk or a run, or even just throwing something for him to fetch, you'll also be increasing your own activity levels.As well as all its physical benefits, exercise releases endorphins and serotonin to boost your mood and can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety.
- Dogs are social creatures. Dogs are also known for their ability to increase their owners' social connectedness. Dogs are grrr-eat at making friends and your pooch will give you plenty of opportunities to socialize with other people while out walking, visiting the dog park, or picking up a few essentials at your local store.
- Dogs are great icebreakers. Does striking up a conversation with a stranger strike fear into your heart? You'd be amazed just how easy it is to get over this sizable mental hurdle with a dog by your side. Best of all, you'll be able to meet and interact with plenty of other dog owners, and we all know that dog lovers are pretty amazing people!
- Dogs provide unconditional love. No matter whether you've just been fired, dumped, or simply had a day you'd rather forget, your dog still loves you. You're the most important person in your pet's world and he or she will always be happy to see you. Knowing you can always rely on that level of commitment and loyalty is invaluable.
Written by a Labrador Retriever lover Tim Falk
Veterinary reviewed by:
Published: 02/12/2018, edited: 04/06/2020