If you’ve ever owned a dog, you know the happiness they can bring. You’re probably familiar with the warmth of their chin resting on your knee, and their body on your lap. You’ve touched their cold nose and scratched their head. You can attest to the unconditional love they provide and the comfort it gives you to see them happily greet you at the door. They don’t have to say a word for you to know how they feel about you. Their tail says it all. They’re man’s best friends and constant companions, but dogs can serve a far greater purpose than just being the family pets.
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Dogs can provide several benefits to people of all ages, even after limited interactions. In many cases, they’ve been proven to treat and even prevent various mental disorders, including depression and anxiety. This is why they’re often used in therapy and rehabilitation settings, especially those related to substance abuse and mental health.
Mental illness can affect virtually anyone of any age and gender. Some of the common disorders include anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Canines have been proven to help treat and even prevent several mental disorders, providing physical and psychological benefits. With their presence alone, dogs can:
- Reduce Stress and Anxiety: Petting or positively interacting with a dog can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol. It can also reduce anxiety in children. According to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pets could reduce childhood anxiety, including social anxiety and separation anxiety.
- Reduce Depression and Loneliness: Alan Beck, director of the Center for the Human-Animal Bond at Purdue University, told Donna Jackel of Hope to Cope that “All people report feeling less lonely in the presence of animals — even birds. Animals are good for everyone, but particularly for anxious and depressed people. For one thing, pets keep us anchored in the present and distract us from negative or anxious thoughts.”
- Create Social Opportunities: If you’re experiencing loneliness or social anxiety, or if you want to prevent these issues, having a dog can create social opportunities for you and those around you. In a 2000 study at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, 65 strangers stopped to speak with someone walking a dog, while only three people stopped to talk to that same person walking alone.
- Give You a Sense of Purpose: Sometimes all anyone needs to boost their mood is a sense of purpose. By owning a dog, you play an important role in their life by feeding and caring for them. These responsibilities can keep your mind occupied with something constructive and remove any feelings of negativity. If you’ve been feeling dejected and seeking meaning in your life, having a dog can change your circumstances for the better.
- Lower Your Blood Pressure Levels: In a 2001 study, researchers found that pet-owning patients with high blood pressure managed to keep their blood pressure lower in times of mental stress than patients without pets. Another study found that when people with borderline hypertension adopted dogs from a shelter, their blood pressure declined significantly within five months.
- Encourages Exercise: People need daily exercise, with at least 30 minutes of physical activity a day, for optimum health. Dogs should also exercise regularly (daily, if possible), as long as their age and health status allow for it. Daily exercise can provide mental and physical benefits for both of you, including improving cardiovascular health and reducing anxiety.
History of Therapy Dogs
The use of therapy dogs dates back to World War II, with a four-pound Yorkshire terrier named Smoky. An American soldier found her in an abandoned foxhole in New Guinea and sold her to Corporal Bill Wynne of the Air Force. She spent the next 18 months at his side in 12 combat missions, air raids and typhoons. When Wynne was hospitalized for dengue fever, his friends brought Smoky to visit him. Her presence lifted his spirits, so she was allowed to stay the night with Wynne and visit other patients, including wounded soldiers.
Wynne, the nurses and others at the hospital noticed the positive effect Smoky had on everyone she encountered. “There [was] a complete change when we came into the room,” Wynne said. “They all smiled; they all loved her.”
This spawned Smoky’s “career” as a therapy dog. She and Wynne visited various other hospitals over the next 12 years, until she retired in 1955. Smoky died in her sleep two years later at the age of 14, but she continues to inspire other men and women to use their own canine companions as therapy dogs.
Today, dogs are used all over the world for various therapeutic and service purposes, including helping children overcome speech and emotional disorders. Golden retrievers are among the common breeds used, due to their calm demeanor, friendliness and gentle disposition. But dogs aren’t the only pets used in therapy; cats, horses and other animals can have the same positive effects.
The Recovery Village in Umatilla, Florida, offers canine therapy to aid in the treatment of substance abuse and co-occurring mental disorders. Equine therapy is also available as part of specific levels of care. If you’re struggling with a mental health disorder with a substance use disorder, help is available. Call today to learn more about how canine therapy and other treatment options can guide you down recovery road.