Dog providing mental health support to human

Dogs and Mental Health: Having A Dog Can Boost Your Mood And Help You Manage Depression And Anxiety

The Connection Between Dogs and Better Mental Health.

The physical benefits of having a dog have been well studied. From increased physical activity, improved cardiovascular health and decreased blood pressure, having a dog is good for you! But, the benefits of having a dog go beyond your physical health and the connection between dogs and better mental health is being studied more closely.

“Adding to the plus side of the canine cause, emerging research is showing an array of ways in which dogs can provide support and a sense of calm for our daily emotional and psychological stresses, as well as traumatic events.”

Caren Osten, Psychology Today 

It is becoming more widely accepted that pets, especially dogs, can help their humans feel better, live longer and generally enjoy a better quality of life. With as many as 1 in 5 Canadians experiencing a mental health problem or illness each year, many are turning to their four-legged friends for support and motivation to heal. 

Person gently touching the head of a mid-sized brown and black dog who is looking affectionately back at them.

3 Ways Dogs Can Boost Your Mood And Wellbeing.

Anyone who has a dog (or who has played with a dog) knows that dogs tend to make people happy – hello oxytocin and dopamine! It’s undeniable! Not only does your dog’s sweet face and silly antics bring a smile to your face, their loyalty, empathy and unconditional love directly affect your mood and mental health. Studies show that dogs can reduce stress, anxiety and depression just by sharing space and engaging with you. Animal therapy has become so widely recognized that these programs are now commonplace in children’s hospitals and senior care facilities, too. 

So, how do dogs work their magic? Here are three ways having a dog can boost your mood and wellbeing and contribute to better mental health. 

1. People Who Have Dogs Exercise More

Aside from the obvious physical benefits of getting outside to walk and play, exercise increases endorphins which fight depression. Dogs tend to thrive on a routine and plenty of physical activity. You will benefit from the consistent time spent moving your body and playing just as much as your dog will. Us humans have become less and less aware of our surroundings and our place in the natural world, and I believe this is one reason why we are seeing a rise in mental illness diagnoses, namely depression and anxiety. Fortunately, we are becoming more aware of the benefits of being in nature and our pets are helping to light the way!

2. Having A Dog Gives You A Reason To Socialize. 

If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, getting out with friends or meeting new people can feel overwhelming. Heck! Even going outside the house can be tough some days. Having a dog with you gives you an easy point of connection (everybody loves a cute dog!). Engaging with people, even in short exchanges, can help you feel less lonely, more connected and can ease some of the symptoms of depression. 

3. Caring For A Dog Gives You A Sense Of Purpose. 

No one loves you like your dog and that special bond can make you feel wanted (and needed) and can take your mind away from your depression and anxiety. Dogs are amazing companions, but they do require a lot of care and attention. Research shows that your mental health benefits from the responsibility involved in taking ownership of a dog and so does your sense of self-worth. 

Dogs Have Helped Me Survive My Own Depression And Anxiety. 

I have worked hard to manage my mental health for years. Sometimes it gets the better of me and climbing up and out of the hole I dig for myself can be hard. One thing that has always made it just a little bit easier is having dogs. 

When I am low and can’t motivate myself to get up and going, my dogs have been there for me. The constant companionship they offer is an amazing source of comfort in dark times. They entertain themselves (and me, by default!) and they listen without judgement. On the other hand, because they are there I have to get up – if only to feed them and let them out for a pee break. Little by little, they draw me back out into the world and help me to forget my troubles for a while.  Caring for them provides me with the routine I need to find my way back to the light. 

Although dogs aren’t supposed to be your therapist, they always seem to handle the job with ease as long as all their needs are being met first. 

Person walking their bike alongside their Doberman dog on a park path as seen from behind.

If You Can’t Commit To Owning A Dog, Find A Way To Spend Time With Some. 

Not everyone can own a dog. If you don’t have space or money to give a dog a forever home, why not spend time with dogs and reap the benefits that way? 

  • Volunteer at a local shelter where they are often looking for people to walk and play with the dogs in their care. 
  • Try dog-sitting. Maybe you have a friend who could use a little break or who is heading out of town for a day or two. Offer to step in and spend time with their pooch. 
  • Foster a dog for a local rescue organization. Fostering a dog is a unique opportunity to give back and make meaningful connections with some special furry friends. 

Service Dogs Can Support People With Chronic Depression, Anxiety and PTSD.

Service Dogs are most commonly known for their role as guide dogs to the blind. However, the work they can do extends beyond supporting people with physical limitations. They can also support people with mental health issues like depression and anxiety.  Service Dogs have also become helpful for military personnel who are experiencing PTSD once they return from active duty. 

Service Dogs offer support by performing tasks that help to ease the symptoms you may experience as a result of your emotional state. For example, Service Dogs can: 

  • Create and maintain a personal space bubble to help you feel less anxious in public or around other people. 
  • Redirect you when they notice signs of anxiety or agitation and guide you to more positive activities like petting them or practicing breathwork. 
  • Help you create a positive and healthy routine in your day-to-day life. Because Service Dogs, like other dogs, need daily exercise, caring for them requires you to be part of that and ultimately this responsibility helps foster a greater sense of self-worth and connection. 

Any dog can be a Service Dog, but not every dog wants to be a Service Dog. In my experience, the dogs that are best suited to this role have a steady disposition and are energetic and intelligent without being “too much” of either. Dante is training to be my service dog and he is doing very well. I have been bringing him with me everywhere since he was 8 weeks old and he is very intuitive to my mood and needs. 

A Growing Number Of People Are Turning To Dogs As Part Of Their Mental Health Care Strategy And I Am Not Surprised! 

Dogs boost your mood just by being themselves! The routine, sense of purpose, physical activity and companionship they bring to your life are all extremely helpful for coping with depression or anxiety. With so many people right here in Ontario living with mental health issues, it is no wonder there is an increased appreciation for dogs and their ability to support better mental health. Whether it is a Service Dog or a family pet, dog ownership can be an important part of your healing and self-care strategy.

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