When it comes to mental health, the traditional lines of treatment typically fall into one of two categories. Talk therapy and pharmaceuticals tend to be the types of strategies that most people rely on when wrestling with mental health issues. However, there are a number of alternative treatments which can provide significant relief to a number of mental health struggles. Therapy dogs can be one of these tools. Dogs and humans have a deep-seated connection that runs back to the origins of domesticated animals, and that long-lasting friendship can play a role in a modern-day therapeutics.
Can Dogs Really Help Mental Health?
Imagine this: you’re having a terrible day. You’re sad, frustrated, and upset with the situation that you have found yourself in. Then, a friendly, calm, and happy wagging dog trots up to you waiting to have its ears scratched and adore you.
Most people would be hard pressed not to feel a little better when presented with such a sight. This basic premise has been adapted by trained therapists to allow them to use therapy dogs in the treatment of mental health challenges ranging from mild emotional problems to more severe mental disorders.
From Muscle Relaxation to Mental Clarity
Stress is one of the most insidious health risks faced by people today. It creeps into every aspect of our lives, but many of us don’t’ have adequate tools or techniques to combat it. Even when a person tries to implement some relaxation strategies, stress can continue to plague them. Stress can be a risk factor for:
- Increased blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Problems sleeping
- Difficulty regulating emotions
- Substance dependency disorders
- A lack of sex drive
One of the reasons people have so much difficulty combatting stress is that they can’t find a way to turn off the parts of their brain that are ruminating on the stressful events in their life or to dissipate the tension in their bodies created by that stress. However, working with animals has been shown to be effective at engaging the complete focus and attention of the people working with them. When you’re engaged with a therapy dog it is very difficult to still reflect on the stressors in your life, leaving you free to have fun and recharge. This can lead to muscle relaxation, reduced mental fatigue and decreased feelings of sadness or unhappiness.
Walking With the Dogs
In some therapeutic dog sessions, patients who are able to are invited to take the dogs for a walk, with or without the therapist or handler depending on the therapeutic setting you find yourself in. This has a number of benefits.
First, walking is an effective form of exercise that is often overlooked by many. Although it might not be as strenuous as running or lifting weights, many of the health benefits those activities bring can also be attained through walking, including the mental health benefits. Exercise improves mood, helps lower symptoms of anxiety and depression, promotes muscle relaxation, and can provide a protective effect against further symptomatology.
Walking is also incorporated into certain kinds of meditation. It provides an opportunity to be completely present in the moment without allowing your mind to wander to all the places that are connected to the mental health difficulties you are experiencing. Working with a dog can make this even more effective. Focussing on the animal, caring for it, and walking together requires even more of your attention than going for a walk on your own does, helping to clear your mind and leaving you free to simply take in the world around you: a very restorative and mentally rejuvenating thing to do.
Therapy dogs have another application for mental health that is more important in elderly populations. When elderly patients are living in assisted living facilities or hospice care, for example, they may often suffer from depression or loneliness which can exacerbate their health difficulties and lower their quality of life.
Interacting with a therapy dog can greatly increase the feelings of happiness and satisfaction these types of patients experience. These dogs are especially helpful at dispelling the feelings of loneliness that may arise when confined to a healthcare facility.
Pet a Dog – Feel Better
This sounds like a huge simplification, but science tends to agree with this blunt statement. When people pet an animal, it has been shown to immediately induce a response that corresponds with relaxation, helping to lower blood pressure and hormones which create a more content mood.
Sometimes traditional mental health therapies are unavailable or ineffective. In other cases, the mental health of a patient may be suffering but they may not have reached the threshold of a diagnosable disorder which will be covered for care. Working with a therapy animal is a potentially useful treatment option for almost anyone because of the universal connections that seems to exist between people and animals. Best of all, unless a person has allergies, there is no risk of side effects when it comes to petting a friendly dog.