How dogs can make a difference when it comes to mental health

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends a meeting with doctors and clinicians, discussing mental health facilities and support under the National Health Service, during his visit to Berrywood Hospital on January 23, 2023 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Toby Melville - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 23: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak attends a meeting with doctors and clinicians, discussing mental health facilities and support under the National Health Service, during his visit to Berrywood Hospital on January 23, 2023 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Toby Melville - WPA Pool/Getty Images) /

There’s a reason why people often refer to dogs as family members rather than pets. Dogs are a significant source of comfort and support for the lonely-hearted and those struggling with mental health.

Studies have long examined how dogs help humans with depression and anxiety. Others have explored how our loyal canine friends offer companionship to children and older adults. One continuous theme also highlights the similarities between dog owners and the parent-child relationship.

Without a doubt, dogs make a difference in our overall happiness and mental and emotional well-being.

Mental Health Takes Center Stage

The flurry of pandemic lockdowns, the transition to remote work and school, and uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 sent the world on the brink of a mental health breakdown. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), global surveys showed a 25% uptick in depression and anxiety, a trend most prevalent among women and children.

Of course, even before the pandemic, one in five American adults reported living with a mental illness. It seems as though mental health has long been steeply declining due to work-related stress, financial burdens and disease. Additionally, social disparities and stigmas make receiving equitable care and mental health support more challenging.

Times have changed since the world lifted its COVID-19 restrictions. Mercer’s 2021 Health on Demand survey found that 50% of employees deem mental health services through their workplace most important. Another 35% stated that having these additional benefits made them more inclined to stay at their current job.

The current administration has also made mental health a priority. President Biden has now budgeted expanding mental health services across all insurance plans, including three annual visits to a behavioral specialist in 2023.

The nation’s strategy for strengthening its mental health system comes after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) saw an increase from 19.2% to 21.6% of Americans seeking therapy from 2019 to 2021.

Some people have taken their mental health into their own hands by adopting a pet. Data from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) says that approximately 23 million American households brought home a dog or cat during the pandemic — but how do pets impact mental health?

Furry Friends: A Cure for Hurting Minds

Pets are proven to have mood-boosting qualities, while dog ownership, in particular, has become one of life’s most joyous pleasures. Here are five ways dogs help humans with depression and anxiety.

1. Anxiety and Depression Relief

Dogs have a unique way of anchoring us in the present moment — perhaps most powerful for those whose minds tend to wander toward stressful situations or dark thoughts.

Sitting and petting your dog’s fur releases serotonin and dopamine — the two brain chemicals most people call our “happy hormones.” In one recent study on therapeutic canines in university settings, investigators suggested that a mere 10-minute interaction with dogs was an effective coping strategy for students dealing with anxiety.

Although dogs may not get rid of your anxiety and depressive symptoms forever, they can provide temporary, soothing relief.

2. Increased Activity

Those with mental illness may struggle to function throughout the day. For some people, emotional distress can lead to physical discomfort, making it challenging to get out of bed. That’s because tension can deprive the muscles of oxygen and lead to pain in the back, shoulders and neck.

Owning a dog is a huge responsibility and requires careful attention to your beloved pooch’s needs. As such, dog owners are usually more active despite their mental or physical struggles.

Having a dog forces you out of your bed and into the world. For example, you’ll find yourself spending more time playing with them or taking them for walks outdoors — research shows that nature also has healing powers for your mental health.

3. Productivity
Work-related stress can cause your mood to take a nose-dive, which is why more companies like Google, Apple and Amazon are turning their offices into dog-friendly workplaces.

An analysis of work environments found that dogs improve employees’ mental health in the following ways:

  • Enable employees to better cope with stressful workloads
  • Improve employee job satisfaction
  • Encourage workers to take breaks to recharge
  • Promote team connection and serve as an icebreaker among employees

Dogs also tend to form a special connection with each other through a pack mentality, which can help create a greater sense of belonging and community at work.

4. Companionship
Those who are more socially isolated may find that dogs provide outstanding support and partnership. Shyness, introversion or other aversions to social interactions may increase feelings of loneliness in some people.

However, dogs are social creatures who enjoy loving relations with their owners. They make it easier to connect with new people by boosting your confidence during conversations.

Dogs also deliver companionship to lonely older adults. In fact, a new study suggests that people 65 and older who have owned a dog for five years or longer have better cognitive health.

5. Security
Owning a dog is a good idea if you live alone or need an additional sense of security. Feeling unsafe can induce anxiety and make you a more nervous individual.

A dog will alert you when someone is at the door, offer protection when you’re out in public and deter burglars from breaking into your home. They also have extraordinary senses and a heightened awareness of unusual smells and noises.

Experts agree that dogs of any size will avert criminals. Although large dogs are more threatening due to their size, small dogs are usually louder and bark more.

Boost Your Mental Health With a Dog

Having a dog isn’t for everyone — some people prefer cats — but dog ownership is undoubtedly helpful for boosting your mental health. In some ways, dogs are our soulmates, filling a void and allowing the light to shine again.

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