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The Healing Power of Paws

The mental health benefits that dogs offer humans are profound.

Key points

  • Dogs provide routine, stabilizing mental health by decreasing anxiety.
  • Petting dogs reduces anxiety by focusing on the moment and releasing oxytocin.
  • Dogs offer emotional support, reducing loneliness and promoting social interactions.

From their visitation in hospital wings to their presence in therapy rooms and their stay at our homes, dogs are a mainstay of our lives, and it’s not without good reason: the benefits that dogs offer humans in terms of companionship, mental health, unconditional love, and stress relief are profound. These loyal companions offer more than just friendship; they provide significant mental health benefits that have been backed by scientific research. One such benefit, and one I am intimately familiar with, is the reduction of anxiety that our furry friends can provide. Here’s how they do it:

Source: Yanet Vanegas
Matlock—my "heart dog"
Source: Yanet Vanegas

Structure, Routine, and Physical Activity

One of the most difficult tasks for individuals struggling with anxiety is maintaining a daily structure. It’s just so incredibly difficult to complete a routine when your mental health is suffering. Dogs naturally bring structure into their owners' lives. From going on daily walks to their feeding schedule, caring for a dog instills a sense of responsibility and routine. This daily structure can provide the much-needed stability that can be so beneficial to the owner’s mental health. Predictability decreases anxiety, and this sense of having a “schedule” is an essential benefit for someone suffering from anxiety.

As an added bonus, dog owners tend to be more active given the physical needs of their dogs, which increases endorphins and alleviates symptoms of depression and anxiety (HABRI, n.d.). The caveat to this is that it requires the owner’s participation and willingness to get out there and partake in activities that would be healthy for both themselves and their dog. But dogs are persuasive, and when you look into their loving eyes, how could you say no?

Living in the Present

It is well known that anxiety often stems from overthinking potential future events and negatively predicting outcomes. In therapy, psychologists frequently employ cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness techniques to address this issue. Mindfulness techniques, in particular, are beneficial because they teach individuals how to stay present and view their thoughts as mere background noise rather than meaningful predictions.

Research has shown that petting a dog can significantly reduce anxiety. Engaging in this activity helps individuals focus on the present moment, thereby silencing intrusive thoughts. Additionally, petting a dog triggers the natural release of oxytocin, a hormone associated with feelings of relaxation and bonding (Brooks, Rushton, Walker, Lovell, & Rogers, 2016). Dogs inherently live in the moment, and spending time with them can help individuals do the same, providing a temporary respite from anxious thoughts.

Social Support and Companionship

Research shows that social support can help reduce stress and anxiety, leading to better emotional health and overall well-being. This support is especially crucial during difficult times (Acoba, 2024). According to the stress-buffering hypothesis, social support protects individuals from the negative effects of stress by providing emotional and practical resources, which can alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression.

The companionship that our furry friends offer is incredibly beneficial. Studies have found that dog owners are less likely to experience loneliness and depression. Dogs not only provide direct emotional support but also encourage social interaction with other dog owners, strangers, and friends. This helps create a sense of community and belonging, which further supports emotional well-being and can indirectly reduce anxiety.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

Research has shown that dog ownership can significantly reduce the stress hormone cortisol. This decrease in cortisol levels has been linked to improvements in various mental health conditions, such as posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression. A study conducted by the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) found that interacting with dogs can help individuals manage stress more effectively due to this decrease in cortisol (HABRI, n.d.). Additionally, studies have demonstrated that dog ownership is associated with lower blood pressure. A study by UCLA Health highlighted that regular interaction with dogs can lead to measurable reductions in blood pressure, which is another physiological change correlated with reduced anxiety and improved overall mental health (UCLA Health, n.d.). These physiological benefits underscore the powerful impact that dogs can have on our mental and physical well-being.

A Real-Life Example: My Journey Through Anxiety With My Dog, Matlock

Throughout my childhood, I often begged my parents for a dog. This dream finally became a reality when I moved in with my fiancé, now my husband and the father of our three children and our fur baby. We found our perfect dog at the Huron Valley Humane Society in Ann Arbor, Michigan—a lab/hound mix we named Matlock.

At the time, I was completing graduate school and enduring the most challenging mental health period of my life, struggling with severe anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. While therapy and medication provided some relief, it was Matlock who became my true lifeline.

Matlock taught me to live in the moment, cherish every belly rub, and perceive my intrusive thoughts as background noise I could control. Our daily walks became a therapeutic ritual, gradually making my anxiety more manageable. We explored various outdoor spaces, such as lakes, dog parks, and hiking trails. These activities helped me stay grounded in the present.

Although therapy and medication played crucial roles in my recovery, Matlock’s unwavering presence made the most significant difference. His understanding gaze and steadfast companionship supported me through the peaks and valleys of my anxiety. Because of him, I deeply believe in the healing power of pets. Matlock's love and support transformed my mental health and enriched my life, illustrating the profound impact a dog can have on one's well-being.

The Takeaway

Dogs offer a natural and effective way to manage anxiety through their unconditional love, emotional support, and the structure they bring into their owners' lives. Scientific evidence underscores the numerous benefits of canine companionship for reducing anxiety, highlighting the unique bond between humans and dogs as a powerful tool for emotional healing. Whether through physical touch, regular exercise, or social interaction, dogs provide a multifaceted approach to alleviating anxiety, making them invaluable companions in the journey toward mental well-being.


Acoba, E. F. (2024). Social support and mental health: the mediating role of perceived stress. Frontiers in Psychology.

Brooks, H. L., Rushton, K., Walker, S., Lovell, K., & Rogers, A. (2016). Ontological security and connectivity provided by pets: A study in the self-management of the everyday lives of people diagnosed with a long-term mental health condition. BMC Psychiatry, 16(1), 409.

HABRI. (n.d.). Mental health. Human Animal Bond Research Institute.

UCLA Health. (n.d.). Animal-assisted therapy research.

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