Dogs As Companions For People With Mental Health Concerns

  • 12/02/2018
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Anyone who has ever owned a pet can tell you their companionship brings a special kind of joy. Cats, hamsters, and birds alike provide friendship, love, and the opportunity to play… All of which makes us happier, healthier human beings.

Out of all the animals, you can choose to have as a pet, dogs are by far the most intuitive. Their ability to communicate with humans is unmatched. They pick up on emotions and understand verbal and nonverbal cues. The special bond dogs have with their humans (and vice versa) translate into real-life health benefits, including relief of mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Depression and Anxiety

Everyone feels a little down and out sometimes, and we all experience feelings of nervousness and anxiety. But sometimes those feelings linger or become so extreme that they are categorised as clinical depression and anxiety. In this instance, intervention is almost always required. Traditional coping mechanisms include medication and counselling, but research suggests that interacting with a pet can be an effective form of treatment as well. Caring for a dog is a great distraction from negative thoughts, and man’s best friend can also boost self-esteem, provide empathy, and initiate social encounters.

While the companionship and unconditional love offered by any dog can help boost your mood, some dogs are better at relieving depression than others. Generally speaking, affectionate, low-maintenance, trainable breeds like french bulldogs, pugs, and poodles rank near the top, but there is a breed for just about any set of needs.

Substance Abuse or Addiction

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, more than 20 million people aged 12 or older had a substance use disorder in 2016. Oftentimes substance abuse occurs along with other mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Of course, the first step for anyone struggling with substance abuse or addiction is to pursue professional help in the form of a 12-step program, private counselling, and/or clinical treatment. These programs will focus on detoxification, repairing the body and mind, and rebuilding relationships.

Even after the addict is clean, the road to recovery is long. It may take weeks, months, or even years to re-establish healthy relationships and develop new ones. If the addict has the resources, a dog can help him or her to avoid feelings of loneliness and isolation as they get back on track. In addition to providing companionship and enjoyment, one study even suggests that the presence of a dog may help recovering addicts open up about their experiences related to addiction.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Many police officers, war veterans, and victims of violence suffer from PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Characterized by feelings of anger, paranoia, and panic attacks, PTSD can make it difficult to function in everyday society. Service dogs, however, are effective at reducing anxiety, depression, and stress associated with the illness. In some cases, the use of a service animal even reduced the need for medications.

While interaction with just about any dog may help relieve depression, service animals are specially-trained to identify when their person is in distress or experiencing symptoms of their illness. For example, many sufferers of PTSD experience night terrors. Service animals can wake their owner from a nightmare, helping him or she gets a better sleep.

Mental health concerns affect millions of Americans each and every day, and we are just starting to see the potential of dogs and other pets as therapeutic resources. As more and more research is done, we will likely see even more mental health benefits to caring for our furry, four-legged friends… and let them care for us.

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