It is no secret that dogs can bestow happiness. Going home to your furry friend after a tiring day at work is a sigh of relief. Who understands your emotions better than them? A number of studies have proved that dogs have an overwhelming impact on your mental health and help us to stay positive. Tilya Fernandes, an animal rescuer from Goa was suffering from anxiety and depression and went through various therapy sessions. She expressed herself with her dogs as she felt people could not understand her. After understanding the importance of her furry friends, she now resides with nine dogs.
“The ability to understand a person’s emotions is very difficult sometimes. People who cannot express emotions or verbally communicate with human beings due to various reasons – inhibition to express or lack of social support, can benefit from a dog,” says Dr Safiya MS, neuropsychiatrist and co-founder of Mind and Brain Hospital, Bangalore.
How dogs help with stress
Marking Mental Health Day recently, we have to thank our furry friends. Sreedhar Mandyam, psychologist and founder of Darwin Psychology Centre, says “Dogs alleviate stress. Often you need somebody to just listen to you, your furry friends do just that without answering back. And if you are just out of a bad relationship, adopting a dog helps you reconnect and socialize again.”
A study in 2016 has found that for individuals with mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), having a trained therapy dog is associated with fewer PTSD symptoms, lowered depression and anxiety and better quality of life.
How dogs help with anxiety and depression
Talking to Happiest Health, Tilya recalls, “My mental condition cannot be understood by people. My dogs welcome me home with the same zeal every day. During my initial years of being diagnosed with depression, I had a bout of crying that wouldn’t stop and I did not know the reasons for my cries either. One of my dogs who witnessed this almost every part of the day, reached out to my pillow and offered me his treat. He thought his dog treat would get me out of bed and stop my cries. I wouldn’t get out of bed that day if not for him. The motivation he got me to my life, one rescue dog grew into a pack” Dogs can sense your emotions and build a special bond with humans.
Dr Safiya says, “Anxiety can lead to a lot of physiological changes (bodily changes) like heart-beat increases, fearfulness, sweating profusely and restlessness which can be difficult to explain to others. This does not let them get on with their work.” The relationship with a pet dog may provide motivation to do things that may be less desirable. Dogs make you more responsible and provide a source of motivation; for example: people with dogs are more likely to comply with the rigors of their daily lives – it creates a structure or a routine.
She adds, “Dogs have the ability to build emotional intimacy — touch — in the form of hugs and licking too. This can be very assuring for people who are feeling lonely or for somebody who cannot express themselves.” Adding to this, dogs can keep loneliness at bay as they are always available to support you emotionally, says Mandyam.
Therapy and service dogs
Dogs are highly trainable which helps individuals with certain mental health conditions. They can improve the emotional, social and cognitive abilities of people with chronic mental health and other health conditions like cancers as well.
Therapy dogs are trained pets that give emotional support, comfort and attention a human needs. They are also called ‘comfort dogs.’ They visit hospitals, retirement homes, hospice centers and even veterinary hospitals. These lovable pets are people-friendly and are trained to comfort hospitalized people and even other dogs who are nervous during their vet visits.
Psychiatric service dogs help assist individuals with disabilities such as PTSD, schizophrenia, OCD and other conditions. Examples of psychiatric service dogs at work can be going in and switching on the lights of a dark room to help a stress-inducing condition, reminding the owners to take their medications, and interrupting an individual’s repetitive behaviors.
How dogs help with other health conditions
“Positive dog interaction like petting, stroking, and talking releases oxytocin (feel-good hormone) in both humans and dogs,” says Dr Safiya. This not only decreases cortisol levels (a stress-related hormone) and lowers blood pressure, but also invokes emotions and bonding in humans.
Dogs are also beneficial for your physical health. They can reduce the risk of heart conditions by lowering blood pressure. Pooches contribute directly to heart health when dog parents take daily walks with them. It has been proven that people with a history of cardiovascular conditions who own a dog, live longer on average due to the positive benefits.
Furthermore, it is not just dogs that help with mental health, many other pets such as cats, fish, birds and other animals contribute.
- Dogs have the ability to understand human emotions and this helps people who cannot communicate with others.
- Dogs alleviate stress – if you are out of a bad relationship, adopting a dog can help you socialize.
- Therapy or comfort dogs are trained pets to give emotional support and comfort; psychiatric service dogs are pets that are trained for individuals with certain mental conditions.
- Pooches are beneficial for cardiovascular health.
- Animals apart from dogs – birds, cats and watching fishes in the aquarium are therapeutic too.