A dog's loyalty, cuteness, intelligence, and love make them exceptional pets. But can they help improve your mental health? The answer is yes. Research suggests the underlying explanation has to do with the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and is increased through things such as touch, sex and pregnancy. When interacting with a dog, eye contact and touch increase oxytocin levels in both humans and dogs. As such, oxytocin may be at least partly responsible for some of the mental health benefits of dog ownership listed below.
1) Dogs can improve our mood and reduce stress.
Many studies have shown that dogs (and other pets) can help decrease depression and anxiety and improve mood. Dogs provide consistent social interaction and significantly reduce loneliness. They are a source of joy, unconditional love, and acceptance.
Some companies have implemented dog-friendly workplace policies to lower employee stress levels. Many universities occasionally bring in therapy dogs to interact with students, particularly during exam time. Populations prone to isolation, such as seniors, can benefit significantly from having a canine companion.
2) Dogs can provide structure and encourage self-care.
Just the act of caring for your dog can create a much-needed structure for some. Dogs require a routine of feeding, exercising and grooming. For some, it’s easier to care for themselves while simultaneously caring for a dog. Overall, caring for a dog can offer a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
3) Dogs can encourage activity, play and exercise.
Whether it’s playing fetch, going for a walk, or taking your dog to a park, or even going on hikes and bike rides together. Those with dogs are more likely to be active. Increased activity can bring about many benefits such as reduced stress, maintaining a healthy weight, lowering blood pressure, minimizing the risk of chronic disease, and maintaining mental well-being.
4) Dogs can facilitate social interaction and friendships with other humans.
Having a dog can improve your social life by making it easier to meet other people. When you take your dog for a walk, they can serve as an icebreaker for conversations. People may be curious about and ask questions about your dog. They may be with their dog who is eager to meet yours.
Studies have found that strangers are more likely to smile, give friendly glances and start conversations with those with a dog. One study has found that dog owners (who walked their dogs) were more likely to know people in their neighbourhood when compared to non-dog owners. Among those surveyed, 41% reported receiving social support, and 21% reported forming friendships through their pet.
5) Dogs can be trained to be service (assistance) dogs or therapy dogs.
Service or (assistance) dogs are used to assist people with physical or psychiatric disabilities.
Guide dogs (for the blind or visually impaired)
Hearing dogs (deaf or hard of hearing)
Psychiatric assistance dogs (PADs) are helpful for many mental health conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
PADs can help their handler with symptoms and challenges that come with their conditions. Common functions include:
Sensing handler’s emotions
Calming anxiety and grounding
Disrupting undesirable behaviour
Reminding to take medication
Therapy dogs are different than service dogs. Therapy dogs are primarily trained to provide affection, comfort and support. They are trained to interact with many people, whereas service dogs are trained specifically for the handler. Therapy dogs are commonly used in hospitals, retirement homes and schools.
It may be tempting to go out and get a dog right away, based on the benefits listed. However, there are many important considerations. It is not a decision to be taken lightly. Dogs are an added responsibility that requires time, effort and money.
Dogs cost money. There is endless cost associated with having a dog. There is the one-time cost, including the cost of the dog, start-up supplies, medical fees (check-up, vaccinations, spaying/neutering), licensing, and microchipping. There are many ongoing costs as well: including food, toys, treats, annual exams, license renewal, pet insurance.
Dogs require time. Having a dog means you have to spend time taking care of them. Examples include bathing and grooming, exercise and play, training, and general attention and affection.
Dogs change your lifestyle. Dogs may not be able to left alone for extended periods of time. You may have to make arrangements for your dog to be in a daycare or have someone check in on them mid-day. This can make dog ownership harder for those who spend long hours away from home or travel often.
If you read through these considerations and you feel ready to add a canine companion to your life. Please do consider either adopting your pup or working with a reputable breeder. Lastly, it should be noted that research around pets and mental health has predominantly focused on dogs. However, there is data to support that any kind of pet can be beneficial. This is good news for those with allergies, lack of space or a lifestyle where having a dog is not realistic.
References and Resources
Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and Psychophysiological Effects of Human-Animal Interactions: The Possible Role of Oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology, 3. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234
Wood, L., Martin, K., Christian, H., Nathan, A., Lauritsen, C., Houghton, S., Kawachi, I., & McCune, S. (2015). The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. PLOS ONE, 10(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0122085
Pets can help their humans create friendships, find social support. | Harvard Health
How Dogs Make Friends for Their Humans | The Atlantic
How Dogs Drive Emotional Well-being | Psychology Today