Are Dogs The Better Therapists?
The health benefits of dogs
More and more studies show the health benefits of dogs that range from stress relief to blood pressure management. And these don’t include the amazing benefits of trained service dogs, which is a completely different beast (and to my mind totally under-utilized in our health care system).
Here are just some of the things our hairy, tail-wagging friends can do for us:
#1 Dogs can reduce stress
“Petting, scratching, and
cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation
and almost as good for the soul as prayer.”
Have you ever felt instant stress relief cuddling a dog? There is a scientific reason why it works so well:
A study conducted by Patricia Pendry and Laymie L. Vandagriff of Washington State University found that an interaction with dogs or cats can help to lower stress levels almost immediately: students that were allowed to pet animals for 10 minutes showed a significant decrease in the stress hormone cortisol.
#2 Dogs can help you to manage your anxieties
“A dog will teach you,
unconditional love. If you can have that in your life, things won’t be too
One reason for that is that the average body temperature of a dog ranges between101 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit (38.3 to 39.2 degrees Celsius) while ours is around 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit (36.1 to 37.2).
The warmth sensation can have a calming effect on our body and mind and thus lower anxiety levels.
Apart from that, dogs can help to fulfill the human need for touch. Touching animals can increase our levels of oxytocin, which is often referred to as the “love hormone” and can make us feel calm and relaxed.
I personally struggle with anxieties when I have to
do long car rides alone, so whenever possible, I will take my dog. Just by
knowing that he sits in my back seat helps me to calm down and be more relaxed.
# 3 Dogs can prevent or alleviate (mild) depression
“Puppies are nature’s remedy for feeling unloved, plus numerous other ailments of life.” Richard Allen Palm
I always considered my dog as the most effective therapy for depressive episodes, and it looks like I am not alone:
According to psychiatrist Dr. Greg Fricchione, director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, taking care of a pet can give us a sense of purpose, which can help to decrease the risk of depressive episodes.
Apart from that, research has found that playing
with dogs can increase levels of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.
Dopamine is released during pleasurable experiences while serotonin stabilizes
your mood. In a nutshell: the more you play with your dog, the happier both of
# 4 Dogs can make us feel less lonely
“No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as the dog does.” Christopher Morley
Recently loneliness has been identified as a major health risk.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, feeling lonely and isolated can increase the risk for high blood pressure, a suppressed immune system, heart disease, depression, obesity, and cognitive functions in older adults.
The U.K. government seems to take the issues especially serious: in 2018 they appointed a “minister of loneliness” to tackle the problem.
But maybe we should instead turn to dogs than to politicians?
According to Dr. Greg Fricchione, experiencing the unconditional love and companionship of pets can help us to feel more secure and less lonely.
Many dog owners (me included) talk to their pets, which is another way of feeling less lonely and isolated.
Also, dogs can increase the chances of interacting
with other people, e.g., by meeting other dog owners during walks.
#5 Dogs “force” us to stay active
“If it wasn’t for puppies, some people would never go for a walk.”
In the U.S., only 50 percent of adults in the U.S. are meeting the guidelines for aerobic activity that are issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which suggest a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week.
Inactivity is one reason for increasing obesity levels and can also lead to many other health conditions.
Dogs need walks and — depending on the breed — high levels of exercise. Studies have shown that dog owners are more likely to meet their weekly requirements for cardiovascular exercise.
Another study published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health” found that dog owners who walk their dogs show higher overall fitness levels compared to people that don’t own dogs.
So now we know that dogs are good for our health, but is it possible that they can make us better humans too?
“Dogs are not our whole life,
but they make our lives whole.”
Apart from improving our health, dogs also seem to improve our behaviors in social settings.
As mentioned above, touching a dog can increase our oxytocin levels. According to research published in Psychopharmacology, increased levels of this “love hormone” can increase trust, altruism, and openness.
Another study found that oxytocin helps us to stay
more faithful to our partners.
But what if you can’t own a dog?
People should only own dogs if they have enough time and energy to take care of the animal appropriately. Dogs need lots of attention, exercise, and love.
So, before you buy or adopt any pet, make sure you can fulfill all the needs of your future companion.
For years, I was not able to have a dog due to my job. Luckily, I fell in love with a dog owner, which fixed the problem. But that’s of course not the only way to handle that problem:
Many animal shelters allow people to “borrow” dogs for some hours, which is an excellent way of giving AND receiving love — a classic win-win for you and the dog.
Another option is to pet-sit a dog from one of your friends. Or simply to hang-out with other dog-lovers.
“Happiness is a warm puppy.”
In good health,
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Find more ideas for improved health and happiness on my Medium publication Wellness Decoded.