Therapy Dogs: How Do Dogs Help With Mental Health?

2019-12-16 |

Pets and people have been helping each other for centuries, with many people benefiting greatly from the help of mental health dogs and therapy dogs for depression.

Having a dog helps to encourage a healthy lifestyle which can in turn help with mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder and more. Looking after a dog can bring many mental health benefits including providing companionship, encouraging exercise, reducing anxiety, and giving you a sense of purpose. 

Pets, especially dogs, make the perfect companions. They give us comfort, calm us down and help to motivate us to get up and move around. Many people claim that the companionship from having a pet has helped them to reduce their stress levels and anxiety. Who doesn’t like cuddling dogs?

As well as bringing joy to our lives, pets can also help to seriously improve our physical and mental health. But how can dogs help with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety? 



Your Pet Cares

As dogs have become domesticated they have learned to live with and understand human behaviour. As a result, they understand a lot more than you may think. Dogs, for example understand tone of voice, body language, gestures, and intonations. They are even able to understand some words! They are able to sense our emotional state and moods, and really do care about how we are feeling. Dogs will often pick up on signs that their owner is down or ill and act accordingly. Many people take a lot of comfort in this unconditional love, which is one of the reasons that pets are a perfect addition to help combat mental health issues. This is one of the many reasons why dogs can help with anxiety and depression.



Your Pet Needs You

One source of depression is loneliness and the feeling of a lack of purpose. Dogs help with mental health issues such as depression because they motivate their owners. Dogs are especially good at this, as they encourage you to get outside for walks and often demand a lot of love and affection themselves! This distracts the mind away from your own negative thoughts or sadness as you are focussing on making your pet happy. Cuddling or stroking a pet is also proven to relax and calm the mind allowing you to let go of any stresses and strains playing on your mind. 

Having a pet also provides you with a routine and adds structure to your day. This is ideal for the eldery, retired or those who live alone and need that boost.

Looking after a pet is a great way to combat loneliness and depression as it provides you with a sense of purpose and achievement making you feel valued. Your pet needs you!



Socialising and Combating Loneliness

Depending on your pet of choice, owning an animal can bring about lots of socialising opportunities. Again, this is ideal for people looking to get out of the house, make new friends or combat their loneliness. A dog gives you that excuse to get out of the house, and the park is a great example of a place where you can meet other dog owners. Walking down to your local park once a day to walk the dog may result in you becoming familiar with other local dog walkers. And your dog might make some friends too!

There are also many social groups that can be joined where you can talk about your pets, get advice or meet up with other people and their pets too! This may help you to find like minded people that share the same passions for pets as you do. 

Pets in general make ideal companions especially for those that live alone or do not have a large support network. Dogs help with depression by tackling loneliness and provide you with companionship.



Pets and Mental Health Conditions

People who suffer with health conditions such as alzheimers can often suffer from anxious outbursts or panic attacks. Animals such as dogs and cats can help to reduce stress therefore limiting or easing these episodes. Pets can be very attentive and can often sense your tension or anxiety before you realise it yourself. 

There are many mental health conditions with symptoms that can be eased by having a therapy dog. These mental health conditions affect children, adults and the elderly so anyone can benefit from a therapy dog. 



Pets and Autism

There are many children and adults that are on the autistic spectrum that benefit from therapy dogs for autism. They often create really strong bonds with their therapy dogs which are valuable to their happiness and development.  Dogs for children and adults with autism can make a huge difference to the lives of people with these conditions. Research has discovered that when children with autism are around a pet dog, they panic less and the stress levels of both parents and children are reduced. 

On top of reducing stress levels, dogs can help with autism by improving confidence levels and helping to bring people together socially. Dogs also provide sensory support such as rest on your lap or giving you their paw which can be calming for people with autism. 

A therapy dog for autism can also become a child or adults new best friend!



Pets and ADHD

ADHD is another condition that can be aided by having a pet. By providing a child with ADHD with a routine for taking care of their pet, it helps them to build their confidence and learn to look after others. It also helps to focus their mind on something positive and beneficial. Pets show a lot of love and require a lot of love in return. This provides a child with ADHD with a sense of achievement and responsibility. Dogs can help with ADHD in children and adults. 



Pets and Children

Having pets can also be a great way to encourage a child of any kind to exercise and play. By playing with their pets or running around in the park with their dog, they will be burning off energy and improving their own health. This may help to improve your child’s sleep and calm them down in the evenings.

Exercise also increases oxygenated blood flow to the brain which can help with concentration and clarity. Exercising improves cardiovascular health too!  



Pets and Physical Health

Not only can having a dog improve mental health, it can improve your physical health too. The mind and body are linked, so improving physical health is proven to have a positive impact on your mind. Whether you have a dog or a hamster, having a pet encourages (sometimes forces) you to get up, move about, play or get out for a walk. Some pets such as fish for example may not offer quite so much of this, however having a dog is the perfect example of a pet that requires you to be active. 

By taking your dog for a walk or run about the park, you are essentially taking yourself for a walk too! Your dog needs regular exercise but so do you! Exercise helps to supply oxygen to the brain and improve blood flow, in turn helping with positivity, concentration and mental clarity. 



Pets and Sensory Stress Relief

All humans require an element of contact and need for touch. Stroking or hugging a person or animal can fulfill that need helping to soothe and calm the mind. This contact is ideal for those suffering with stress and anxiety. Stroking a dog, cat or other animal can help to reduce blood pressure and calm you down. Playing with an animal can help to release serotonin and dopamine which also calms and relaxes the mind and body. Dogs help with stress relief as they love to be stroked and fussed with!



Pets and Weight Loss

Owning a dog can help to drastically increase your cardiovascular health. Studies have shown that dog owners are far more likely to meet their daily exercise requirements than those who do not own a dog. When you have a dog, you have to consider how your new family member will tie into your life. This may encourage you to go for hikes through the countryside instead of sitting in the pub for example! Dogs are energetic and require constant stimulation and will encourage and motivate you to be active.

This increased activity can therefore help you to lose weight and improve both your physical and mental health. 

Having a dog can help to improve and maintain your own health as well as keeping a dog happy and healthy. 



Did you know?

-People with pets have been proven to have a lower blood pressure than those without pets

-Studies show that pet owners are less likely to battle with depression and anxiety than those without pets

-Playing with a dog elevates levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain - these chemicals help us to stay calm and happy

-Heart attack patients survive longer with pets than those without pets

-Even watching fish in an aquarium helps to lower the pulse rate and relax the body

The ways in which dogs can help people with mental health issues are endless, and anyone who is suffering from issues such as anxiety and depression should think about getting a therapy dog for their mental health. 



How to Find the Perfect Pet for your Mental Health

Investing in a pet is a huge and important commitment and should be considered carefully before making any decisions. 

Although dogs can help greatly with depression, anxiety and many other health conditions, you should always think very carefully about whether or not you are able to properly care for a dog. As much as your health is important - the health and wellbeing of the animal is also equally as important. 

Here are the top three factors that you should consider before making that important decision:


  1. Do you Have the Time to Look After a Dog? 


Dogs require a lot of care and attention - it’s not all cuddling and and playing games. You should first look at your lifestyle and consider how a dog would fit into your schedules to ensure you have enough time to commit to them. 


  1. Can you Afford to Look After a Dog?


Looking after a dog is not free. Vet bills, pet insurance, food, bedding, kennels and any potential damage caused to your property, all factors that should be seriously considered before commiting to a dog. Are you able to provide them with the best care possible without it being a strain on your finances?


  1. Are you Willing to Adjust Your Social Patterns?


Although having a dog can be sociable, it can also restrict you from taking part in certain other activities such as going on holiday, having a weekend away or sometimes even just going out for the evening. Dog’s should be seen as an additional member to the family, so considerations should be made to ensure they will be cared for at all times. You may need to make a few changes to your social habits to ensure that this is the case. 


Once you have carefully considered all options and decided whether on not a therapy dog is for you, you can start to look for the perfect pet!



What Type of Dogs is Best for Me?

Dogs in general are good-natured, caring and affectionate. However, depending on their breed and background this can differ slightly. 

For example, rescue dogs are a fantastic way of purchasing a pet, however, you should always make sure that you check the history and temperament of the dog first. If the dog itself has had a difficult start in life, it may suffer from anxiety or be easily distressed. In this case, it may not be ideal if you are choosing a dog for mental health therapy purposes. As much as you require a balanced dog to help you with your mental health, your dog may require your therapy too!

When choosing a dog for a child (especially if the child is on the autistic spectrum or has ADHD) you should be careful to choose a gentle and well-balanced dog that is not too boisterous or, in contrast,  not too nervous. Always make sure you discuss these points with the breeder or rescue centre when choosing your new dog. 

There are several other factors that should be considered before making that all-important decision of choosing a therapy dog. Here are some of them:



  1. What Size of Dog Can You Have?

You may love the idea of big fluffy cuddly pooch, however, you should always be realistic when searching for the perfect dog for you. Always look at the space you have and consider if it is enough for the breed you wish to have. If the answer is no, you should look into smaller breeds. 



  1. Does the Dog Need to Have a Gentle Temperament?

Is this therapy dog going to help with someone who is elderly, frail or perhaps a child? If the dog does not have a gentle nature then it will not be suitable for these people and it may end up worsening their anxiety or stress levels. Make sure to ask plenty of questions about the dog’s nature before purchasing.



  1. Do You Want an Active Dog?

Different breeds come with different requirements and personalities. If you are looking for an active dog that is going to get you out of the house and into the countryside then you should search specifically for active breeds such as Retrievers, Border Collies and Sheep-Dogs. If you do go for one of these more active dogs, do bear in mind that this will require you to also be very active so make sure you can keep up! If you would prefer or require a more calm and lower maintenance dog,  you can look into breeds such as a Pekingese or a Spaniel. It can be hard to know exactly how active any given dog will be, the breeds just give us an indication, so it is always recommended to do plenty of research and consult an expert. When choosing a dog to help with anxiety or depression, it is important to choose one that will benefit your mental state.



  1. What Age Dog Should You Choose?

Everyone loves the idea of a cute bouncy puppy bounding around the place, especially children, however puppies can be hard work. If you do not have the time, money or energy to look after a puppy, it is best to go for an older dog that is already house trained and requires less attention. A puppy for example, may not be suitable for those people who are elderly, frail or have young children in the house. 

Dogs help with depression, anxiety and many other mental health conditions. Whether you suffer from mental health issues yourself, or you have a friend or family member that does, dogs are a valuable addition to any household that is able to have one. 

If you think that you or a loved one would benefit from a therapy dog then this guide should help you to make those all-important decisions.  



FAQs

 

Can Dogs Sense Anxiety?

Dogs are extremely intelligent and observant animals. They are pack animals and it is in their nature to be attentive and look after their pack leader - you! Your dog will have learned what it looks like when you are anxious - your facial expressions, body language, tone of voice etc. Dogs also have an extremely sensitive sense of smell and can detect even the smallest chemical change in your body. Dog’s tend to know if there is something not quite right with their owner and will try their best to comfort you.



What is a Therapy Dog?

A therapy dog is a dog that has been specially trained to show comfort, affection and support for people in hospices, hospitals, schools and retirement or nursing homes. They are even used to help comfort people in disaster areas.



Does Having a Therapy Dog Really Work?

Yes, having a therapy dog really can work! Humans and animals have a special bond, and interacting with a loveable dog can help to reduce blood pressure, release endorphins and generally calm people. Therapy dogs can bring a much-needed sense of relief and joy to many people suffering from physical and mental health issues.