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Canine comfort: How dogs help us navigate our mental health challenges

Last Updated on February 20, 2024 by Dogs Vets

The article is developed in partnership with BetterHelp.


Life can throw many challenges our way. Sometimes, our feelings may become overwhelming or negative, leaving us stressed, exhausted, or lost. It’s important to remember we’re not alone, and there are resources to help us through these challenging times.

Believe it or not, one incredible resource comes with a wagging tail and endless affection — dogs! The mental health benefits of having a dog are undeniable, and they can play a huge role in helping us navigate our mental health challenges.

Dogs: Beyond Just Loyal Companions

Our furry friends are wonderful companions, but their positive impact goes beyond cuddles and playtime. Research shows that dogs can significantly improve human well-being. Here’s how:

  • Unconditional Love & Acceptance: A dog’s love comes without judgment. Their enthusiastic greetings and unconditional affection boost our self-esteem and remind us we’re cared for, especially when we’re down.
  • Stress Reduction: Petting a dog can trigger the release of calming hormones within our bodies and even lower blood pressure. When anxiety hits, spending time with a dog can distract us and help us regain our composure.
  • Motivation & Routine: Dogs thrive on routine. They need walks, playtime, and regular meals. Caring for them gives us a sense of structure and purpose, even on rough days. Getting out of bed and exercising with our furry friend is a natural mood lifter.
  • Social Connection: Walking your dog can spark conversations with neighbors and fellow dog lovers. These interactions build our social circles and confidence, helping combat feelings of isolation.
  • Comfort During Difficulty: Dogs seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to our emotions. They snuggle close when we’re sad, offering silent but powerful support that says, “I’m here for you.”

Special Canine Helpers: Therapy Dogs and ESAs

Some dogs receive special training to provide mental health support:

  • Therapy Dogs: Think of them as professional furry therapists! Therapy dogs visit hospitals, schools, and care facilities, bringing comfort and reducing stress for those facing challenges.
  • Emotional Support Animals (ESAs): ESAs are prescribed by a doctor or mental health professional to ease symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other conditions. ESAs provide love and calming support as part of your everyday life.

Responsible Ownership

Dogs bring amazing benefits, but owning one is a major commitment. They require proper care, including food, exercise, training, and trips to the vet. Before adopting a dog, it’s crucial to ensure you’re fully prepared to handle these responsibilities.

Luckily, you can enjoy the benefits of dogs even if you’re not ready for a pet:

  • Volunteering at a shelter: You can walk, play, and care for dogs awaiting their forever homes.
  • Offering to dog-sit: Caring for a friend or neighbor’s dog gives you time with a furry friend without long-term commitment.
  • Visiting a therapy dog: Some hospitals, libraries, or universities near you may offer visits from trained therapy dogs.

Finding Additional Support

Dogs are wonderful allies on our mental health journey, but if you’re experiencing mental health challenges, remember that additional help is always available. Seeking support is a courageous step. Here are some resources that can assist you:

  • Therapy: A professional therapist or counselor can provide guidance and support to help you navigate your mental health challenges.
  • Support groups: Joining a support group with others facing similar struggles provides an opportunity for connection, understanding, and shared experiences.
  • Hotlines: If you need immediate support, hotlines are available 24/7 for mental health crises.

During therapy, you may learn about psychological defense mechanisms. These are our mind’s automatic ways of protecting us from difficult emotions or situations. We might use denial, refusing to acknowledge a problem, or projection, blaming others for our own unwanted feelings.

While helpful in the short term, a therapist can help you recognize these mechanisms and find healthier ways to cope.

Remember, no matter what challenges you may be facing, you are not alone. And with the help of a furry friend and other resources, we can navigate through difficult times and prioritize our mental health and wellness.

How Dogs Can Help Us Become Better Humans

The amazing connection we share with our dogs doesn’t just make us feel better. It can inspire us to be better humans, too! Here’s how caring for a furry friend encourages some truly awesome qualities within ourselves:

  • Patience & Understanding: Let’s be honest, dogs don’t always listen perfectly. They might have accidents, bark too much, or chew things they shouldn’t. Through it all, they teach us incredible patience and forgiveness and remind us of the importance of positive training methods. These same skills make us better in our relationships with other people.
  • Living in the Moment: Dogs are the best at enjoying simple pleasures: a sunny spot for a nap, chasing a ball, or a yummy treat. They remind us to slow down, find joy in the every day, and let go of our worries for a little while.
  • Empathy & Connection: Caring for a dog can deepen our empathy. By reading their body language, anticipating their needs, and simply loving them, we become more in tune with the emotions of others. This can make us better friends, siblings, and family members.
  • Selflessness: Sometimes, caring for our dogs means putting their needs first. Maybe we get out of bed a little earlier for a walk or skip watching TV to play fetch. These acts of love teach us selflessness and remind us of the importance of being there for the people (and animals) we care about.

Dogs teach us important lessons about life. Their joyful presence, unwavering loyalty, and endless support make a meaningful difference in our mental health. When navigating life’s ups and downs, a canine companion is a constant source of strength and a powerful reminder that we are loved even on our hardest days.

So whether you’re a proud dog or simply appreciate the love and support of these furry friends, we can celebrate the countless ways they improve our lives.

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