Dogs and Mental Health

Canine Companions Relieve Mental Illness Symptoms

The famous saying goes, “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” If you had told me this as a toddler, I would have scoffed and then proceeded to laugh in your face because I knew the truth: A dog is a girl’s best friend. One of my earliest memories is of me playing with my uncle’s golden retriever, Casey, my face and hands all up in his snout. He was thankfully super gentle and gracious to three-year-old me. At the time, I had absolutely no concept of fear when it came to dogs because I never thought ill of them. Even as a toddler, I had a fundamental understanding, that if you were kind to dogs, they ought to be kind to you, and that it was simple. From ages three to five, begging for a dog was a sport, and I was a pro. When I was six, my parents finally relented, and we rescued a happy little mutt named Devon. He is still around today (thank goodness), and he is still my best friend. Dogs are incredibly beneficial to those experiencing mental illness because they are compassionate creatures that make coping with daily life much more comfortable.

Dogs are loyal, they love unconditionally, and they are capable of comforting people. In dogs, I have always found a strange sense of comfort that humans could not offer me; I felt understood. My dog, Devon, forever has my heart. I vividly remember the day we adopted him and feeling like the luckiest girl in the world because, he was as my best friend. Devon has seen me through everything for the past fourteen-odd years, even my 2017 diagnosis of ADHD, anxiety, and depression. 

High School was rough for me. I went to a small, private, all-girls, Catholic school; it was a less than enjoyable experience for me. High school was the most challenging time for me to navigate coping with my mental illnesses. Research has proven that ownership and interaction with canine companions are incredibly beneficial to mental health recovery processes. I sought therapy and trialed prescribed medications; however, Devon’s quality time was the only thing that brought nearly instant relief. Every day when I got home from school, seeing my happy, crazy dog made everything much better. I would roll around with him on the family room floor while we watched TV together. In the meantime, I would manage to nearly cover my mostly black and charcoal gray uniform in beige dog hair, but I felt honestly happy for the first time all day. This behavior did not please my mom, who already did laundry daily. However, it was a time when I could relax and unwind and experience joy with my precious Devon. 

Some people may argue that dogs add stress to one’s life, even if they experience mental illness. People who identify with this stance look at a dog as work and not as a friend. They see the accumulation of vet bills, the time suck of daily walks, the headaches caused by loud barking, the frustration of accidents in the house, and the ripping-up and annihilation of personal items. However, to this, I argue that if you experience a mental illness that the positive aspects outweigh the negative aspects of dog ownership.

 Being around dogs can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, feelings of loneliness, and other adverse side effects of mental illness. Being in the presence of dogs increases a person’s happiness; this has been proven through brain chemistry changes when interacting with dogs. These studies saw increased levels of oxytocin and dopamine in the brain associated with spending time with a dog, resulting in positive emotions. Another study found that owning a dog can boost even the depressed person’s sense of responsibility, giving them increased feelings of self-worth and belonging (NAMI, 2018). This finding makes sense because when you have a dog, you have a furry dependent who is also your best friend in the world.

One might argue that dogs are too chaotic for children with ADHD because they rile them up and make them more hyper. My dad can attest to this. As previously stated, we adopted Devon when I was six, and I was diagnosed with ADHD, among other things, at age seventeen. For eleven years, I exhibited symptoms without being diagnosed. It was a good run, and Devon and I had an absolute blast. I would chase him around the house, the backyard, etc. I would feed him tons of treats, give him deli meat, eggs; you name it. We went for walks, played in the yard, and watched TV together. After these fun times, we would always feel tired. However, my parents did not have a great time during the hyper chaos, always shouting for us to stop. Spending time with dogs is one of the best ways for children to cope with ADHD. Dogs can help children release energy and emotions through playtime.

Additionally, dogs can teach young children responsibility; through a schedule of caretaking (feeding, walking, bathing, etc.) Dogs are also great for kids who have autism. The social interaction and sensory reinforcement have proved very beneficial in studies. Having a child responsible for caring for a pet has been known to aid in learning time management and accountability for the well-being of their furry friend as well (Mental Health Foundation, 2018). 

Some people say that dogs are not that comforting, no more comforting than a friend or spouse. To that, I argue, you can interact with dogs in ways that you cannot with humans. For example, giving a dog an impassioned belly rub releases so much anxiety for both parties. Additionally, dogs don’t talk, as far as I know. This fact of life is fantastic because you can experience companionship without having to interact verbally, which is excellent for multiple reasons.

Dogs are not expecting you to entertain or impress them; they just want to be loved, fed, and walked. This reality is especially relieving when you are not feeling your best or are in the process of healing. Those who experience severe conditions of mental illness or are recovering from disorders can especially benefit from dogs who have been professionally trained as service dogs. The Recovery Village, an organization that rehabilitates patients experiencing substance abuse disorder and mental illness, finds that dogs have proven themselves invaluable aids in therapy and recovery processes for several diseases and disorders. The comfort dogs offer to trauma patients was discovered first-hand by an American soldier during World War II. 

The use of therapy dogs dates back to World War II, with a four-pound Yorkshire terrier named Smoky. An American soldier found her in an abandoned foxhole in New Guinea and sold her to Corporal Bill Wynne of the Air Force. She spent the next 18 months at his side in 12 combat missions, air raids, and typhoons. When Wynne was hospitalized for dengue fever, his friends brought Smoky to visit him. Her presence lifted his spirits, so she was allowed to stay the night with Wynne and visit other patients, including wounded soldiers. Wynne, the nurses, and others at the hospital noticed the positive effect Smoky had on everyone she encountered. “There [was] a complete change when we came into the room,” Wynne said. “They all smiled; they all loved her. “This spawned Smoky’s “career” as a therapy dog. She and Wynne visited various other hospitals over the next 12 years until she retired in 1955. Smoky died in her sleep two years later at the age of 14, but she continues to inspire other men and women to use their own canine companions as therapy dogs. Today, dogs are used all over the world for various therapeutic and service purposes, including helping children overcome speech and emotional disorders. Golden retrievers are among the common breeds used, due to their calm demeanor, friendliness and gentle disposition. But dogs aren’t the only pets used in therapy; cats, horses and other animals can have the same positive effects. (Recovery Village, 2020)

Yet again, dogs have proven themselves as furry angels! Today, these loving creatures, both informally and professionally trained, are helping soldiers who are recovering from PTSD and those who are experiencing mental illness and other disorders.  

Life can be difficult, and dogs simply make it better, even for those who are not currently experiencing mental illness. Having a mental illness makes the nuances of daily life that much more complicated. However, at this time — amid the coronavirus pandemic and renewed activism against systemic injustice — many individuals without a formal diagnosis are experiencing some form of anxiety. Shelters are experiencing a sharp increase in demand for pets (Whitten). Since the pandemic began, people have been more eager to adopt. Due to being at home alone and transferring to working from home, they now have more spare time to care for a pet. It makes sense to adopt because now more than ever, people are isolated due to social distancing rules, and they are feeling lonely.

Everyone deserves a support system and a coping buddy who offers them solace and makes them feel loved. I never want to live in a world without dogs because they bring me so much joy. I have grown to love dogs more and more throughout my life and believe that they make even the most difficult days that much easier.

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