Feeling stressed? Get a Dog - Andrea Busfield

Feeling stressed? Get a Dog - Andrea Busfield

I often tell people that I’m good with my own company, that because I’m not frightened of being on my own, I don’t mind living on my own. And this is an existence I’ve grown accustomed to over the years. But of course, I’m not really alone – I’m very far from being alone. I have six rescue dogs, and they are the reason I’m good with my own company. They are the reason I never feel lonely.

In a recent article in the Guardian, the therapeutic value of our relationship with our dogs was said to be a topic of increasing interest among researchers. Marion Janner, a mental health campaigner is quoted as saying that dogs are possibly the best teachers we’ll ever have – as well as being man’s best friend.

“Dogs love us unconditionally,” she said. “They’re the ultimate in equal opportunities – entirely indifferent to race, gender, star sign, CV, clothes size or ability to throw cool moves on the dance floor. The simplicity and depth of this love is a continuous joy, along with the health benefits of daily walks and the social delights of chats with other dog walkers.”

In short, if you own a dog it’s rather like living with your own therapist albeit one that takes the sofa while you’re left with the hard chair.

This year, World Mental Health Day falls on October 10th, so it seems apt to look at the unique gifts our dogs bring us especially as they are increasingly recognised as being good for our mental health.

As well as alleviating stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness, there is the physical aspect of their companionship that necessitates some form of exercise for owners, and daily walks outdoors are known to boost physical and emotional wellbeing.

Anyone who has ever shared their home with a dog will fully understand what the workplace is just beginning to tap into – that dogs simply make lives better.

For some time now, dogs have been used in hospitals and care homes to bring comfort to the sick and the elderly – and the benefits of these visits have been so tangible that other institutions have started to follow suit.

Two years ago, the Centre for Mental Health ran an evaluation on therapy dogs in prisons. A pilot scheme was introduced in three prisons in the North East. From the interviews and observational data, it was found that the therapy dogs “had a calming influence, helped increase coping skills and strategies, supported engagement, and provided a safe space to explore other ways of expressing and processing emotions.”

More recently, in America, researchers have been exploring whether emergency dispatch operators, such as first responders, would benefit from some form of dog therapy. Being frequently exposed to indirect trauma there is a school of thought that introducing facility therapy dogs to 911 dispatch centres may offer some form of psychological benefit.

In Canada, education authorities are also looking into the benefits of dog therapy to help stressed out students. The Council of Ontario Universities reported that 65% of students experienced overwhelming anxiety in 2016. Within this period, the Council also reported a 6% increase in depression. The figures prompted Ontario’s universities to invest in a number of initiatives to support student mental well-being, including programmes that used certified therapy dogs at informal, drop-in sessions around campus during which students could freely interact with the dogs. The events were scheduled during exam season and other stressful periods of the school year, with goal being to improve student mental health outcomes.

So, what is it that makes dogs so awesome? Well, last year, a study by Washington State University found that stroking a dog for 10 minutes can significantly reduce stress levels. It doesn’t sound long, but the research team witnessed huge reductions in the stress hormone cortisol from even this brief interaction.

Another university study further found that petting a dog for 15 minutes boosted the ‘feel-good’ hormones serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin. Petting dogs even lowered blood pressure by 10%.

So, there you have it. Dogs are actually good for your health. But we kind of knew that anyway.