For thousands of years, humans have cultivated relationships with dogs. Though controversial, some scientists even theorize that humans domesticated dogs long before they began settling into groups and cultivating agriculture. No matter when it began, the strong bond that developed between human and canine continues to evolve. The more we get to know our four-legged companions, the more we love them. One very good reason why: Dogs are good for our mental health.
Humans are Stressed
Much of ”normal life” these days consists of navigating economic collapse, financial hardship, natural disaster, human tragedies… And that’s just before we leave the house. Buckling down to manage the stresses of our individual lives on top of these — school, work, family – well, it’s no wonder that as a nation we are burned out and stressed out.
How Dogs Help Fight Stress
Providing sensory stress relief. A few years ago, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia conducted a study which revealed hormonal changes that occur in humans when they interact with dogs. Specifically, petting a dog for a few minutes activates serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin (the “feel good” hormones). At the same time, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, decrease. This discovery has led experts to believe that therapy involving dogs could go far in helping people cope with stress-related mental health disorders, as well as depression.
A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of depression. The National Institute for Mental Health Reports that “Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44.” Additionally, “Major depressive disorder affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year.” With numbers like that, it is no wonder that more people than ever are seeking relief from an ever-increasing spectrum of pharmaceuticals. As it turns out, a major weapon in the battle against depression is already living in our homes.
How Dogs Help Fight Depression
Depression is an isolating disease that can make you pull away from friends, family and society in general. Having a dog provides you with unconditional acceptance and helps you feel like you are not alone.
Relationships with human family and friends can be complex. Relationships with dogs are simple. They love you, and want to be near you, no matter what. You are free to experience your feelings, unencumbered by well-intentioned, but unsolicited, advice. “Pets offer an unconditional love that can be very helpful to people with depression,” says Ian Cook, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA.
No matter how depressed you are, your dog needs to eat, walk and go to the bathroom. Sticking to your dog’s schedule can help you stay on track as well.
Depression makes even the smallest tasks seem insurmountable. But if your dog has only you to rely on for his needs, it helps focus your attention on something besides yourself. ”Taking care of a pet can help give you a sense of your own value and importance,” Cook says.
If you have a dog, sooner or later he will need a walk. Just getting outside for a few minutes of fresh air and physical activity is good for your mental health.
As humans, we crave touch. In addition to releasing ”feel good” hormones, petting your dog lowers your heart rate. Cuddling and caressing a dog promotes a sense of wellbeing, and just plain makes us feel better.
Having a dog is an instant conversation starter when you find yourself around other dog lovers on a walk or at the vet. Talking about your pet is a non-threatening way to engage with other people, which can help fight the isolation that depression brings.
Deep Down, We Already Knew
There are many examples in practice of dogs helping humans feel better. The LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs, a group of certified therapy dogs and handlers are based out of Illinois. This group travels to areas that have experienced tragedies in order to lend a comforting presence, which they believe can lead to healing. From their mission statement: “A dog is a friend who brings a calming influence, allowing people to open up their hearts and receive help for what is affecting them.”
Other groups, such as Pets For Vets, Pets for Patriots, K-9′s for Warriors and Soldier’s Best Friend, have realized that dogs can be a lifeline for military veterans struggling with physical disabilities, or mental and emotional issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). These groups take dogs (often from shelters), train them to be service dogs, and pair them with a vet whose needs match that dog’s skill set; effectively saving two lives at once.
Increasingly, certified therapy dogs are also making appearances on college campuses during finals week, providing students with a much-needed mental health break.
Ask just about anyone who lives with a dog, and I am sure they will tell you their dog makes their mental health better. It is fantastic that science is finally catching up with what dog parents everywhere already knew – dogs just make us happy!