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How Dogs Drive Emotional Well-being

Science helps explain the profound psychological benefits of owning a dog.

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"A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than you love yourself." –Josh Billings

It is said that dogs are a (wo)man’s best friend. The logic behind this sentiment is obvious to most dog owners: They are loyal, devoted, loving, dependable, and typically cuddly. Who wouldn’t want a best friend with those qualities?

But according to research, dogs can be much more than simply a trusting buddy. The evidence proving the physical benefits of living with a canine companion has been well documented and varies from improved cardiovascular health and increased physical activity to lower cholesterol and decreased blood pressure.

There’s no question that my dogs get me out to do more walking and hiking than I would otherwise, even on the days when I’d prefer to lounge in my pajamas or sip my coffee and read. But physical exercise aside, dogs add much more to our daily lives, and science is catching on.

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.

Here are a few of the findings concerning dogs and the benefits they can offer.

Dogs teach us mindfulness.

When your dog lies on the floor, bathing in the sun as it streams through the window, it is doing just that — experiencing the sense of warmth that spans across its body. “Perhaps one of the greatest psychological benefits of interacting with a dog is the opportunity it provides to be more mindful — to purposely focus your attention on the present moment,” reads an article from Harvard Medical School.

Dogs can inspire mindfulness during an ordinary walk. In a New Yorker article, author Frédéric Gros says, “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.”

Spending time with dogs, who have a natural capacity to open up to each moment as it unfolds — the sights, sounds, and smells — can motivate us to follow their example. Try taking a cue from your dog, and as you go about your day, take a moment to bring your attention to the sensations in your body. Take a few deep breaths, and notice how that makes you feel. Engage your senses, and savor what is happening around you. Then thank your dog for setting a good example.

And if you’re looking to meditate with your dog, check out Petitations, a website started by Elisabeth Paige, a UC-Davis researcher. Paige found that petting her dogs became her anchor to the present moment, and she has since written a book on how to “petitate” and offers guided meditations on her website.

Dogs relieve stress.

Life is filled with stressors and to-do lists that never seem to end. Recent studies show the psychological benefits of having a furry friend come to work, and a growing number of companies — Atlantic Health System, Mars Inc., Amazon, and Etsy, to name a few — offer a dog-friendly environment in an effort to reduce stress among employees.

College students are yet another stressed-out population. When the University of British Columbia brought in therapy dogs, providing 246 students with a chance to pet and cuddle during drop-in sessions, the results, published in Stress and Health, were impressive: Students who were surveyed both before and after engaging with the dogs reported a significant decrease in their stress level, along with increased happiness and a higher energy level following the session.

“The results were remarkable,” said Stanley Coren, study co-author and professor emeritus of psychology at UBC. “We found that, even 10 hours later, students still reported slightly less negative emotion, feeling more supported, and feeling less stressed, compared to students who did not take part in the therapy dog session.”

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Dogs lead us to nature.

As dog owners, we are outside walking our dogs every day; hopefully, a few times a day. But having a dog also motivates us to get into green spaces — a walk in the park, along a beach, or into the woods. And thanks to these leash pullers (mine, anyway), the lure into nature is bringing us significant benefits.

In recent years, research has shown that nature can provide positive impacts by offering stress relief, boosting your mood, increasing social interaction, encouraging physical activity, soothing pain, and enhancing your creativity. Even in an urban environment, you’ll reap the benefits. Studies suggest that being in any green space — whether it’s a small park or an endless coastline — will boost your mental health.

Dogs offer empathy.

When Benjamin Stepp, an Iraq War veteran, experiences pain and starts to feel agitated, Arleigh, his service dog, will try to distract him by first putting her paw on his foot. If Mr. Stepp doesn’t respond, Arleigh, who came from K9s For Warriors, will put her head on his lap. And if that doesn’t work, she will stand up and place her paws on his shoulders.

This ability, known as emotional contagion — the spread of feelings between animals and people — is gaining traction in the field of science. Recent findings from the University of Vienna suggest that dogs can sense emotions and even differentiate between good and bad ones.

Stepp, who suffered a traumatic brain injury and endures severe pain in his back and legs, says anger kept him alive when he was serving overseas, but that is no longer necessary. Once Arleigh senses her owner's anger and anxiety building, she gives him a signal to start using mindful breathing and other tools to calm down until she senses his negative emotions have diminished.

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“Since dogs share their natural environment with us, humans, our emotional vocalizations are likely to be of relevance to them,” says Annika Huber, author of the University of Vienna study. “It indicates our close relationship.”

Dogs bring comfort.

When my father was dying of cancer, it was my dog, Ginger, who brought me the most comfort. Every morning before visiting my father at the hospital, she and I walked to our secret place — a hidden, rocky perch in a nearby park from where we could look out over the water — and just sat. I stared in thought, sometimes crying, other times frustrated, and Ginger got close enough to my body so I knew she was there to support me. She waited for my cues, watching my every move.

The comfort that dogs are able to bring touches people in a variety of circumstances — sometimes traumatic. An article in The Los Angeles Times reported how young sexual abuse victims are finding comfort in therapy dogs, which are provided by the Orange County district attorney’s office. The program, a partnership with a group called PANDA (PAWS [Pets Are Wonderful Support] Assist the Needs of the District Attorney), aims to help comfort child victims of sexual abuse when meeting with prosecutors on their case.

Cynthia Woxen has seen the smiling faces on these children when her therapy dog Teagen, a former racing greyhound she adopted five years ago from a rescue, enters the room. "There have been a couple times during our PANDA visits where she [Teagen] refuses to leave the side of a child who needs her," Woxen said.

Dogs provide a sense of purpose.

In Being Mortal, a book about the realities of aging and medicine by surgeon Atul Gawande, the author uncovers through his research and experiences that people are at their happiest when they feel their lives have purpose. In one chapter, Gawande writes about a bleak nursing home that found joy and renewal when a dedicated physician brought in plants, animals, and children. The discovery here was that many of the depressed patients simply needed to make sure a plant was fed water, or a little bird was eating.

The need to care for another being offers a reason — a sense of purpose — to get up and do what needs to be done, especially for the elderly. For many people, young and old, dogs can drive that intention — we feed them, walk them, care for them, and get little but affection in return.

Dogs promote socialization.

When out for a walk with your dog, and given the opportunity, how many times does Snoopy sniff another dog or tolerate being sniffed? These sniff sessions are prime opportunities for striking up a conversation with the human on the other end of the leash.

Having social support brings us a sense of belonging and is essential to our well-being. Walking your dog is not only a great way to explore your community, but also a chance to chat up your neighbors. In a study of more than 800 people over 50, those who walked a dog at least four times per week were more likely to report feeling a strong sense of community, compared to people who didn’t own a dog, lending itself to healthy aging.

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In a study of people in wheelchairs, those who had a dog received more smiles and had more conversations with people passing by than those without a dog. This is significant because able-bodied people often exhibit uncomfortable behaviors — such as gaze avoidance, greater personal distance, and briefer social interactions — making dogs a factor toward encouraging friendlier exchanges. These results also suggest that service dogs have a greater role than just work tasks; they enhance opportunities for social connections, which is an added, meaningful benefit.

So, next time you’re out walking and not feeling hurried, enjoy some banter with another dog owner. Even a smile — from one dog lover to another — can go a long way.

Dogs decrease loneliness and depression.

We may be ever more connected on social media, but in these times of physical disconnection, loneliness is becoming a health epidemic. In fact, there is enough concern in the United Kingdom that Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed a Minister of Loneliness to tackle the issue. But research shows that among the benefits of dog ownership is a sense of companionship and social support that can lead to less loneliness.

According to Gary Christenson, chief medical officer at Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota, it comes down to a pet’s loyalty and devotion: "There is a bond and companionship that makes a big difference in mental health."

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Pet owners have a lower rate of depression, and studies also show that they suffer fewer symptoms of depression when there is a pet in the home. "The calming presence and the social bond that pets bring can be very powerful," says Christenson. "Animals give something to focus on instead of the negative thoughts a depressed person is prone to have. When a pet pays attention to you, they're giving you unconditional love and acceptance."

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Helen Sushitskaya/Shutterstock

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