What are the mental health benefits of owning a dog?
You know the age-old saying "a dog is a man's best friend". The logic behind this saying is evident for most dog owners. They are loyal, loving and renowned for their affectionate nature. Dogs have been helping humans in many ways for over 15,000 years, from helping in hunter-gatherer societies through to protecting their families by being effective bodyguards.
According to research from the NHS, pet owners benefit from the bonds they form with their canine companions. Dogs have been linked to better health outcomes after owners suffered major cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes. They have been referred to as “a heart's best friend," after two studies showed people who own a dog seem to live longer than those who do not own one.
Another health benefit associated with owning a dog is taking them for regular walks which is associated with lower body mass index, improved cardiovascular health, lower cholesterol and decreased blood pressure.
They help alleviate depression
Having a four-legged friend that depends on you for daily walks is a good tool to motivate people suffering from depression to get some gentle exercise. Research from the University of Manchester found that pets played a key role in providing an exercise routine for their owners which helped boost their mood by raising endorphin levels.
Petting and cuddling your dog can also provide a calming effect and help take your mind off your work or financial troubles. Research from Washington State University found that petting your dog for just 10 minutes a day had a significant impact on levels of cortisone and oxytocin. Caring for a pet also gives your day purpose and reward, and a sense of achievement as well as helping you feel valued.
They help ease loneliness
Dogs are great companions who provide a sense of security and help their owners feel needed. They are especially helpful for older people who commonly suffer more from loneliness. Pets mirror some of the benefits that human relationships have for your health, which can be particularly helpful for people who find themselves alone. What’s more, relationships with your pets are less likely to have their ups and downs, making them much more consistent and easier to manage emotionally.
The most recommended affectionate dog breeds for loneliness are:
- Golden Retriever
- Labrador Retriever
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
- English Bulldog
Additionally, owning a dog offers a great opportunity to socialise with other dog owners which directly eases loneliness. This can be as simple as heading down to your local park to meet up with fellow dog owners, or heading to pet-themed events or shows such as Crufts.
Emotional Support Animals
Emotional support animals are helpful to people that are suffering from severe mental health disorders. They are companions that provide therapeutic support, unconditional love and comfort to those in need. Mental health disorders include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Dogs and cats typically fulfil the role of an emotional support animal, but other animals can be trained as well.
These animals are not required to receive specialised training or perform certain tasks for a specific disability. The only requirement necessary is that the animal is fully under control in public and does not create a nuisance in or around the domestic environment. To be accepted for an emotional support animal, you must be assessed by a mental health professional first. Once prescribed, you can register your pet provided it meets the guidelines for a legal service animal.
Therapy dogs play a special role in providing comfort to people in hospitals, retirement homes, nursing homes, hospices and schools. Pet therapy is a guided interaction between a person and a trained animal and the animal’s handler. The purpose of pet therapy is to help someone recover from, or cope with, a health problem or mental health disorder.
Dogs and cats are most commonly used in pet therapy. However, fish, guinea pigs, horses and other animals that meet screening criteria can also be used. The type of animal chosen depends on the therapeutic goals of a person’s treatment plan.There are three main classifications of therapy animals:
Therapeutic Visitation Animals: These are household pets that are trained and taken to hospitals, nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities, who provide comfort and joy for people that are living away from home due to mental or physical illnesses.
Assisted Therapy Animals: These animals work with physical and occupational therapists in a rehabilitation setting to assist individuals in meeting their recovery goals.
Facility Therapy Animals: These animals work in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. They assist residents who suffer with Alzheimer’s, dementia or other mental illnesses, and are generally cared for and provided by the facility.
The most common breeds that are used as therapy animals are:
- Labrador Retrievers - they can be described as versatile and hardworking, so these dogs can be trained in a wide range of areas with ease. They are smart, sociable, loyal and good-natured. Their strengths typically include retrieving items which makes them a suitable breed for people with physical disabilities who need assistance in and around their home.
- German Shepherds - they are gentle, kind, and infinitely patient. They are one of the most trainable breeds and are more commonly used for their role within the police force where they are accustomed to working closely with their trainers. They enjoy working and are always aiming to please their companions.
- Greyhounds - these sweet, peaceful and gentle dogs are known for racing, but they are also a quiet and affectionate breed.
- Poodles - The poodle is one of the most intelligent dog breeds which means that they typically respond well to training. They are fast learners and quite the four-legged charmers.