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Have you ever seen a dog on the street and wondered “man… what did we do to deserve dogs?” For me, when I think this, a dog doesn’t even have to be doing anything particularly extraordinary; they can just be sitting there waiting to cross the street with their owners and I’ll think they deserve the world and more. But seriously, dogs are incredible creatures. I have no idea what the world would look like without them. Dogs provide humans with so many services and benefits; In particular, dogs help reduce anxiety.
Dogs have been used by humans throughout history for a number of things; from Poodles sniffing out truffles to Bernese Mountain Dogs pulling carts of vegetables to the markets (Canadians favourite dogs). Dogs are great in drug detection, and a guide for the visually impaired. But, dogs help reduce anxiety, no matter the severity. There are more and more options for training dogs to be therapy dogs, but that isn’t always necessary. Just having a dog who has no particular training in the ways of therapy can still be beneficial.
With school now underway, this is an incredibly important and relevant topic. School is the number one cause of stress and anxiety for an outrageous number of students. We, as a society, need to change the rhetoric that students must sacrifice their mental health in order to do well in school. However, in the meantime, for those who are currently suffering from stress and anxiety, listen up. We’ve got some good news for you.
How do dogs reduce stress and anxiety?
The science behind why dogs are particularly good at reducing stress and anxiety is quite simple. Studies have been conducted to monitor humans stress levels in the presence of dogs and without. In the simplest of terms, when humans are in the presence of a dog, their cortisol levels (stress hormones) decrease; blood pressure will drop as well. When humans are put under duress and there are no dogs around, their cortisol levels are substantially higher. Anyone who has been around a dog, or have pet a dog, while they felt stressed can vouch for this statement anecdotally.
Yes, there is science to why dogs help reduce anxiety, but there are also a lot of behavioural characteristics of dogs that are beneficial to humans.
Dogs can recognize panic attacks
One of the reasons why therapy dogs are useful for children with autism or people with epilepsy, is because they can recognize “attacks” or “episodes” before their human even realizes that they are about to experience them. Dogs are incredibly in tune with their humans and can detect increases in heart rates, changes in the pheromones your body is producing, or any other typical tendencies that humans may experience during and attack.
They are stubborn when your health is on the line
You know that feeling when suddenly your breathing gets shallow, your chest feels like its clenching and you almost start feeling claustrophobic in your own body? Dogs can tell when that is happening, and instead of just ignoring it and trying to go about your day, a dog will make you sit down and it will make you pet them until you start feeling calm, and that clenching fist on your insides starts to release. Some dogs will bark and nudge and bother you until you let them help you.
You can also train your dog to know when it is time for you to take your medications, which is an excellent bonus for those of us who will turn an alarm off, only to immediately forget to get up and actually take the medication.
Everyone will look at your dog, not you.
One thing that can cause great anxiety for people is when they are in social situations. Oftentimes those who suffer from anxiety will feel like everyone is staring at them or secretly judging them or something. The great thing about having a dog with you all the time is that, being the dog loving society we are, no one will be looking at you — mostly everyone will notice your dog first and focus their attention there.
Furthermore, dogs actually are a great way to ease into social interactions. When a stranger comes up to talk to you or start casual conversation, you can direct the conversation to your dog (often the conversation will start there anyways). Talking about your dog, something that you will be comfortable in doing, will come more naturally than trying to force small talk.
Dogs make it easier to make new friends
Having a dog means that you will often find yourself talking to other dog owners. Like our last point, conversations will be easier and of less stress when your dog is the topic. You can bond with people and have organic human interactions based off a mutual likeness — you both love dogs. Someone who suffers from social anxiety may find that having a dog will help them make friends with other people that like or have dogs.
You will get out more
Another perk of having a dog is that, oftentimes when someone is in the midst of severe anxiety, they will want nothing more than to just stay home and hide. However, when you have a dog to take care of, you will need to get out and take them for walks. Getting out of the house will bring in more opportunities to have conversations with people and thus, more distractions. The last thing someone with anxiety would want to do is to talk to strangers, but like in #4, having human contact (specifically over mutual interests) may help reduce the anxiety and panic you may be feeling.
Furthermore, dogs help reduce anxiety because they need to be let out and taken for walks on a daily basis. This routine, the responsibility and pride that comes from taking care of another being, and just getting out of the damn house, will have a substantial impact on anxiety levels.
You are responsible for keeping the animal alive
Continuing on to number 5, when you have the responsibility to take care of and keep another being alive, it will give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Without the dog, you may feel the temptation to call in sick and just burrow yourself in your blankets all day when it all gets too much. But with a dog, an owner will have the responsibility to get out of bed, feed them, and take them out. By that point, you will already be on the move, be more calm by being with the dog, and more likely to take on the day.
Also, oftentimes people with anxiety may have bouts of depression and feelings of worthlessness; but being able to say that you are the sole reason your dog is alive and thriving, provides a point of pride. Without you to take care of them, where would they be? This mutual, I need you/you need me relationship has been proven to help people who suffer from depression.
Dogs listen without judgement
If you have ever experienced anxiety, you may know that talking about what is making you anxious can help reduce your anxiety levels. However, oftentimes it may be an incredibly difficult thing to do, to talk about how you’re feeling. Dogs are like a therapist in this respect. You can sit with them, alone and in private, and tell them all about the troubles that are weighing down on your shoulders. They will listen intently, and you can feel safe on letting everything off your chest sans judgement.
Dogs are great at providing deep pressure therapy
Whether they know they are doing it or not, dogs help reduce anxiety by providing deep pressure therapy to their humans. Being able to sense when you are having a panic attack or severe anxiety, a dog will know to come over and make you pet them or be a cause of distraction in order to help you relax and feel calm. However, they can also, when the anxiety or stress or depression is all too much, just sit in your lap, rest their head on your chest, lie down beside you, or just in any way, shape or form, be touching you to ground you. This pressure that a dog provides on your body is scientifically proven to lessen the strength of an anxiety attack.
Recently there has been articles going around with tips on how to reduce anxiety at night so people can sleep properly, and this often comes in the form of having a really heavy blanket. This pressure is incredibly grounding and relaxing for people who suffer from anxiety. Just like heavy blankets can do this, so do dogs.
Dogs help keep you grounded and in the present
Continuing on from #8, a dog’s presence (whether deep pressure therapy or just being there in general), can providing a calming affect that helps sufferers of anxiety stay grounded and in the present. Oftentimes when someone is experiencing a panic attack, they will lose their bearings, which can cause even more stress and panic. A dog will lick your face, nudge your legs, or make you pet them so that you can keep hold of all of your senses during an attack.
Dogs practice mindfulness
Dogs help reduce anxiety, whether they know it or not, by teaching their humans how to practice mindfulness. Do you think a dog cares about what they said to that stranger at the movie theatre on June 16th, 2007? Or even what might happen tomorrow? No. Dogs are excellent at living in the moment and accepting everything that comes their way for what it is. They will lead by example, if you are accepting of it, to embrace the present and release the anxiety of the unknown.
Dogs help reduce anxiety: summary
Whether you are in grade 8, grade 12, in 3rd year of university, or not in school at all — if you or someone you know suffers from anxiety, it is important to put mental health at the top of your priority list. Yes, there is an incredible stigma attached to mental health in our society, but for normalization to happen, we need to talk about it. If you are experiencing anxiety, depression, or any mental health problem: acknowledge it, don’t try to diminish your feelings.
Everyone will find what works for them in helping reduce their stress and anxiety, but we strongly believe (with the backing of science) that dogs are an excellent reprieve from the crippling grip of anxiety. Take things slow, make sure you feel comfortable and are not putting yourself under more stress; but give dogs a shot at helping.
The great thing about having a dog to help with anxiety is that you don’t actually have to own a dog to receive the benefits! If you sign up with GoFetch, you can borrow a dog essentially whenever. If you begin walking dogs on a regular basis you can get regular clients and still benefit from the routine of having a dog and needing to take care of them.
Here at GoFetch, we strongly believe in demolishing the stigma around mental health, and helping people figure out what works for them in terms of coping mechanisms. We hope that this blog opens your eyes to the wonderful world where dogs help reduce anxiety, and you continue on a path of resilience and determination to not let your mental health problems get in the way of enjoying your life!