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Dogs, Mental Health, and the Ways They Can Help Our Minds

by Will Tottle(more info)

listed in animals, originally published in issue 250 - November 2018

Mental health can be a struggle, and one that is often difficult to overcome alone. While having a strong support network is an excellent advantage to have, there is another part of your family that you may be forgetting; your dog. The ways in which dogs can help our mental health and the way we think are quite incredible, and next time you are feeling low, you might want to consider asking your furry friend for a hug.

How Dogs Can Improve Mental Health

When you are feeling anxious, stressed, panicked, or even depressed, hugging or petting your dog is often the best way forward. This is because the action releases the hormone oxytocin throughout the body, and it is the hormone responsible for lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and stress levels. It also gives you a good dose of endorphins, boosting your mood and leaving you feeling both calmer and happier than before.

Aside from calming your heart rate and bringing you back to a less anxious state, they also create a distraction from any upsetting thoughts or situations. Dogs understand our emotions, and what is happening, so they want to comfort you any way they can. You need each other, and it creates a bond of mutual trust and love.

How Dogs Can Improve Mental Health

Depression, as well as other mental health issues, can leave you feeling unmotivated and can make it difficult to perform even the simplest tasks – like getting out of bed or brushing your teeth. A dog changes all of that because they bring structure and organization to your life. They need you to get up and feed them, walk them, play with them, and let them outside.

It gives you responsibility and, in turn, leaves you with a sense of satisfaction and validation because you have been able to care for a living creature successfully and have it return your love. A structured day brings a sense of purpose; you need that when you are depressed.

They also get you outside for a walk, and gentle exercise combined with fresh air can really help to alleviate feelings of anxiety, something multiple studies have proven, especially as it helps to lower your blood pressure and take your mind off things. Plus, it gets you outside and socializing with other dog walkers, which alleviates feelings of loneliness and isolation. It also boosts confidence and rebuilds social skills.

How Dogs Can Help the Elderly

Loneliness is a huge issue for older people, and it can be hard to overcome. Much of the time, it is because their children stop visiting and friends pass away – leaving them with no one to talk to. Dogs can help them to rediscover the meaning in their life, and even help bring them out of depression.

They bring a way to stay connected with the outside world, such as when you go for a walk with them, while also providing you with companionship in themselves. They are a lifeline, offering someone to talk to all the time, and they will never judge or interrupt you, just stay there and listen.

Depression is quite common in older people, and forgetting to care for yourself is a big example of this. Having a dog encourages you to take the time to look after yourself, reminding you that your health is important and that you need to pull yourself together - for yourself, but also for the sake of the dog that relies on you. The act of caring for them also leaves a sense of self-worth and validation, because you know that you are able to look after your dog and keep them happy as well as healthy.

Dementia and Alzheimer’s are also health concerns for older people, and they can cause behavioural issues that arise as a result of being unable to cope with even small amounts of stress. In fact, researchers have found that those who suffer from these conditions and have a therapy dog available to them have massively reduced levels of stress, as well as fewer outbursts of rage and aggression.

How Dogs Can Improve Mental Health

How Dogs Can Help Kids

Children that have conditions like ADHD and autism can often feel very isolated from their classmates and other children, as well as judged by others for the way they are. Dogs are not critical creatures, and they will never judge a person or child for the way in which they think or behave. They are accepting creatures, but also a confidant that every child can share their deepest secrets and feelings with.

It’s a different form of interaction than with a friend or family member, and one that is often more beneficial because the dog can’t tell anyone what the child said. They teach respect and empathy, with children that grow up with dogs often developing better social skills than those who do not. They can also reduce separation anxiety in children than find being away from their parents difficult. This is because the dog becomes both a friend and family member, offering company when alone.

For children with ADHD or autism, a dog is able to help them form a more positive image of themselves, as well as decrease stress levels due to the oxytocin released during contact with their dog. In addition to this, they can help to de-escalate meltdowns and bouts of aggression – this is because of their naturally calming nature, and the simple touch of a dog can help to relax the child and leave them feeling better, as well as offering a form of comfort. They can even be trained to sense meltdowns, preventing them from happening or helping make them shorter.

In the case of ADHD, it is often the case that the child will have much higher energy levels (and the same can be said for any kind of hyperactivity disorder). Walking the dog and playing with them is a great way to spend this energy in a healthy manner, and it benefits both the child and dog. Plus, the dog gives their day structure and routine because they need to walk it and help care for it. All of this increases the bond between them and strengthens those emotional ties.

The routine also teaches them to plan ahead, which is important during adulthood. In addition to this, the exercise from walking the dog (or playing with them) increases the amount of oxygen that goes to the brain. This improves concentration levels and also reduces stress, which means that the child can feel more relaxed in the day.

It works in much the same way for autistic children, as they are able to concentrate for longer periods of time just by having a dog in the room, and the fact that the dog communicates without words often leaves nonverbal children feeling more accepted and understood. Those who are not able to communicate well tend to have more things to talk about, even if they are mostly centred around their new dog.

The Power of Robot Animals

The concept of robotic animals is a popular one, and numerous studies have been conducted to see what kind of effect they have on the people that use them. Generally speaking, these tests were performed on the elderly, and they found that feelings of loneliness and depression were greatly reduced when they had a robotic pet on their laps (it should be noted that they are both fluffy and interactive). Some even preferred it to a real pet because they could not run away or choose someone else to be with.

Similarly, an experiment took place where one group was given a robotic pet to interact with, and another was taken on regular trips to the city and bingo halls. However, the study found that those who went on the trips actually felt more depressed and lonelier afterwards, whereas those who had been with the robotic had decreased levels. There was also less worry overall because they did not have to be concerned about what would happen to the pet if they went into hospital or died.

A study was done with children and a robotic dog as well, and in this one there was both a robot dog and a real dog for them to play with. When spoken to afterwards, the children found both to be a good social companion, and liked the portability of the robot dog, but also found that the robotic version was able to do less with them than a real dog, which they disliked.

To Conclude

Hopefully, this has helped you to learn more about dogs and the relationship they have with our mental health. If you want to learn more about the subject, we have an excellent and detailed article on the topic that will take you through everything you need to know. Dogs are one of the best cures for a difficult day, and if there is one thing you should do each day, it’s to give your friend a massive hug – it’s good for both of you.

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About Will Tottle

Will is a freelance writer and blogger If you are interested in more information on the benefits of dog ownership including health tips, buyer’s guides and gear reviews, then check out his guides over at Dogowner.co.uk   Follow on Facebook or Twitter

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