When people think about dogs, the first thing to come to mind is the phrase “man’s best friend.” Dogs are known for their loyalty and are often used for protection and companionship. However, science suggests that pets can actually contribute to our mental health as well. Although all pets seem to have some benefit in providing mental relief—a study in Time Magazine showed that even caring for crickets helped alleviate depression in geriatric patients—dogs are the most easily trained and are the most popular emotional support animal.
Dogs have been known to help alleviate their owner’s stress. Just petting them causes the human body to release oxytocin, a feel-good hormone that lowers both blood pressure and cortisol levels. In fact, these benefits have been seen across age ranges in people with various forms of mental illnesses.
A study done in 2016 by Tufts University examined the effect on children who practiced reading aloud to trained therapy dogs. They found that students who read aloud to these dogs not only showed fewer signs of anxiety but also showed improvement in their reading skills. These animals also have been shown to help children with autism, as some individuals on the spectrum rely on non-verbal cues to communicate, much like dogs do. Additionally, dogs are non-judgmental and are easier for the child to connect with. Most importantly, building a relationship with a dog can help the child learn skills they will use in interpersonal relationships with humans in their life. Dogs are also known to help children with anger or attention issues by helping them regulate stress and anxiety levels.
In older adults, the companionship of a dog can help alleviate problems like depression and mood swings. It has been proven that just caring for a dog raises a person’s self-esteem and helps give them a new sense of purpose in life. Owning a dog also encourages adults to ‘get out of the house’ and meet other dog owners, which helps them socialize and keeps them from loneliness. Furthermore, caring for a dog gives life structure, which encourages people to stay active even when they might be going through a depressive episode. This same structure and activity also helps those with cases of Alzheimer’s or dementia by curbing the anxiety that may trigger their symptoms and helping prevent aggressive outbursts.
The science is pretty clear when it comes to the benefits of owning a dog. Man’s best friend should definitely be considered as a part of mental health care plans for those who are capable of caring for one. There are a lot of dogs in shelters that need homes and would love to be a companion for someone. With the right training, these dogs can get the loving home they need, while their owners will get a loyal companion who will change their lives for the better.