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There’s just something about dogs that makes people smile.
Even those who aren’t compelled to add a dog to their family are usually unable to suppress a grin when they see a dog playing in the snow or acting guilty when caught investigating the trash. But dogs aren’t merely entertaining – there are actually several mental health benefits of owning a dog.
In fact, dogs not only improve our mental health, they improve our physical and social health too. However, we’ll be concentrating on the mental and emotional benefits dogs provide today.
Check out 11 of the ways dogs help you to feel better and enjoy a positive outlook below.
Dogs have daily, unwavering needs that you’ll have to satisfy on a day-in, day-out basis. This includes not only meals and regular bathroom trips but affection, attention and the opportunity to exercise. While you may not relish your dog’s need for a 6AM bathroom break, the structure it provides to your life can help ward off depression and improve your sense of self-worth.
Your dog’s needs will also help you to adopt a regular routine, which can help to not only reduce stress but to encourage a regular sleep schedule, which provides a wealth of trickle-down benefits.
Anytime you go outside and enjoy some fresh air and – most importantly – sunshine, your brain will release endorphins, which will elevate your mood. And because your dog will need to go outside at least three times each day, you’ll enjoy an improvement in your general mood several times a day.
You’ll also get more Vitamin D by going outside regularly, which will help keep your bones strong and your immune system operating at peak capacity. And don’t worry: You can even derive these benefits on cloudy days, as many of the sun’s rays will penetrate the clouds.
Most dogs require regular exercise, so you’ll need to take Fido for regular walks, allow him to accompany you on your daily jog or take him to the park to toss around the frisbee. Even if you are only taking a leisurely stroll through the neighborhood with him, you’ll get a bit of exercise in the process.
Exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve your mood and fight off depression, but it is also good for your cardiovascular health and it helps to prevent obesity and diabetes, among other ailments.
Oxytocin is the chemical released by the brain when a mother stares into the eyes of her newborn baby. It is essential to the bonding process, and both mother and child benefit from the chemical’s release. As new research demonstrates, the same process happens when you stare into your dog’s eyes, and it has many of the same benefits mothers and babies enjoy.
Oxytocin generally makes you feel great, and it is often colloquially called the “love hormone.” And the great thing about this aspect of dog-human relationships is that you don’t need to do anything special to enjoy the benefit – simply pull your dog up on to your lap and look deeply into his eyes while petting him gently.
The simple and repetitive act of petting a dog helps to reduce stress, which is part of the rationale behind the use of dogs in some therapy contexts. In fact, petting a dog (it doesn’t even have to be your dog) helps to reduce stress in two ways: As when you gaze into a dog’s eyes, petting a dog triggers your brain to release oxytocin, and it also reduces the amount of cortisol (one of the primary hormones involved in the human stress response) released too.
Some of the best stress-relieving activities simply take your mind off your worries for a while. Often, you’ll find that your problems seem a little less daunting after taking a break and revisiting the issue later. Dogs provide a great way to do this, as they’re always ready to play or sit in your lap for a while, allowing you to take a brief mental vacation.
Loneliness can be a debilitating feeling, which most people wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. However, you don’t have to limit your interactions to members of your own species – you can also spend time with your dog. Spending time with your dog isn’t quite as valuable as spending time with other people in this regard, but it is occasionally the only way to combat loneliness.
In fact, the companionship provided by dogs can be especially valuable for those who have difficulty forming relationships with other people. This is part of the reason dogs are often used in therapy contexts for children on the autism spectrum, as well as seniors and those with PTSD.
The unconditional love provided by a child, parent or spouse is one of the most rewarding feelings in the world. But humans aren’t the only ones that can provide this type of unflinching support and affection – dogs can too. In fact, this unconditional love may be part of the reason that pets appear to reduce stress more than spouses or friends do, in some circumstances.
On a somewhat related note, it is important to recognize that dogs are exceptionally good listeners. Not only will they patiently wait while you pour your heart out to them, they won’t react with one iota of judgment. They’ll just sit there while trying to figure out how to love you best.
Play is not only important for children; adults also benefit from regular recreation. Unfortunately, few adults find the time to engage in play, but it can be hard to resist when a furry-four-footer is giving you eyes and dropping his ball at your feet.
Dogs enjoy playing in a variety of different ways, so it is always a good idea to introduce your dog to games and activities that you enjoy too. This could include anything from swimming to agility trials to just wrestling on the living room floor.
Dogs are typically very in tune with their family’s emotions, and they’ll often try to step in and stop conflicts in the interest of familial harmony. This will only help if you heed your dog’s advice and breakaway from the conflict, but the gentle reminder provided by your dog is often enough to convince most people to take a break, calm down and revisit the issue later.
Your dog may even come to your defense if he feels that you are being attacked. And although you should always seek professional help if you are frightened of a partner or family member, a loyal dog can help you feel a little safer while working through the issue.
When researchers tracked the recovery of patients who’d suffered from heart attacks, they found that patients with dogs recovered more quickly. Other studies have shown that dogs help reduce high blood pressure better than medications do in some cases. These benefits probably relate to a dog’s ability to lower your cortisol levels, but the actual mechanism at work isn’t yet clear.
It is important to understand that the mental health benefits of owning a dog isn't only of value to those suffering from mental health challenges. They also provide social and emotional support for – as one study calls them – “everyday people.” So even if you feel like you’ve got everything under control and wake up smiling every day, a dog may help you feel even better.
However, while it is clear that dogs can help to improve the lives of their owners (and most other people they encounter), it doesn’t mean that everyone should add a dog to their family. Dogs – especially big dogs – require a lot of care and attention, and they’ll occasionally poop on the floor, chew up your shoes or knock over your trashcan while seeking out tasty treats. So, you must think carefully about becoming a dog owner and ensure that you are prepared to deal with the ups and downs of dog ownership.
If you decide that you do want to add a new dog to your family, be sure to do your homework first. Start by checking out our comprehensive guide to large-dog ownership (or giant-dog ownership if you like really big dogs), and learning everything you can about your soon-to-be-pet before signing adoption paperwork or making a purchase.
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