How do dogs make us feel better about ourselves? What sorcery do they possess?
If you’re already a proud dog-mom or dog-dad, you’ve probably had first-had experience of feeling your mood boosted by your four-legged companion. Our relationships with dogs affect our brain chemistry, psychology, and sense of well-being. Full disclosure: I am a dog person, but other pets can drive mental and emotional well-being as well.
Dogs offer empathy.
Emotional contagion is the spreading of emotions between animals and people. Perhaps you’ve felt this before when your dog seemed to know you were feeling low and sought to comfort you. In the same vein, service dogs and emotional support dogs can be extremely beneficial for those who live with disabilities. They’re especially remarkable in their ability to comfort their owners, especially when they begin to sense anxiety or distress building. Their eyes and facial expressions can communicate a plethora of emotions. Emotional contagion prompts dogs to comfort us in our distress as our distress becomes their distress.
This short clip from the New York Times shows how various dogs reacted to seeing their owners in distress:
Dogs teach us mindfulness.
There have been countless times that my dog has taught me how to appreciate each moment in the simplest of ways. My first dog, Daisy, would bound ahead of me on our walks, tugging at her leash with pure joy emanating from her with excited panting. Crisp air surrounded us, Michigan maple, birch, and oak trees were generously painted for autumn, and Daisy’s golden coat bounced ahead of me. My memories with Daisy are so vivid because she grounded me in each moment and invited me to be present with her. When I allowed myself to be present with her, I found joy in places I’d normally overlook.
Dogs offer a sense of purpose.
Research has shown that we feel happier when we have a sense of purpose. The responsibility of caring for someone, whether a person, pet, or plant, can offer a sense of purpose. The responsibilities that come with caring for a dog, such as feeding them, walking them, and giving them adequate attention and play-time, can not only foster a strong bond between you and your canine, but can also instill a powerful sense of motivation in other areas of your life.
Dogs can help with depression.
For someone living with depression, dogs can be incredibly helpful in alleviating depression and general loneliness. While they may not serve as a substitute for formal mental health treatment, they’ve been found to reduce depression in various ways:
Exercise: Dogs need exercise, so you’ll inadvertently exercise with them. Physical activity can help fight depression, and research has shown that consistent exercise can improve sleep and general health.
Socialization: Depression can create physical and social isolation. In addition to companionship felt between you and your canine, the simple of act of walking your dog, or visiting the dog park together, can create natural opportunities for in-person socialization. Having a companion, whether human or canine, can also help prevent depression from worsening.
Self-Worth: As dogs can offer you a sense of purpose, they can also help build your self-esteem. The responsibility that caring for a dog requires can offer a reassuring message of “I can care for someone else, and I can care for myself too.”
Dogs improve our physical health.
It’s been found that simply playing with dogs can increase levels of oxytocin and dopamine, boosting positive emotions and bonding between a person and their pet. Additionally, people with dogs tend to have lower blood pressure and a lower chance of developing heart disease.
Bonds with our animals build us.
The human need for companionship and emotional connection led to the domestication of various animals including the evolution of dogs from wolves. Our bonds with canines speak to our desire to feel loved, appreciated, and understood. From personal and professional experience, I’ve seen the tremendous benefit that dogs can have on mental and emotional well-being in humans.
If you want to experience a personal connection with a dog without owning one — as caring for one is a big responsibility that should not be taken lightly — there are other options. For example, you can get your dog-fix by volunteering in a local dog shelter or house-sitting for dog owners. Spending time with dogs, and animals of any kind, can offer you a new, powerful experience that may grow you and teach you more about yourself.