Dr Hannah Godfrey BVetMed MRCVS
When planning to write this article about the mood-boosting benefits of dogs and how dogs can improve the mental health of the people around them, I was already confident that it was true. However, what I wasn't prepared for was how forthcoming pet parents would be when I asked them about how having a dog had helped them personally. But that's the thing with dogs. With their waggy tails, loving gazes, and boundless enthusiasm, they diffuse situations, put smiles on people's faces, and encourage people to talk.
During the pandemic and now, in its wake, more people than ever are struggling with mental health issues. These issues range from anxiety and depression to loneliness, low self-esteem, or lack of motivation. So, how can our four-legged family members help improve our mental health, well-being, and quality of life?
In what ways can dogs support mental health?
Pets and mental health have long been connected, with heroic hounds visiting hospital wards and acting as therapy dogs for many years. A cuddle with a canine companion reduces our cortisol levels, which is the stress hormone that causes unpleasant symptoms like sweating and a racing heart and can lead to anxiety and depression. However, that's not the only way dogs can improve your mental health. Dogs act as mood boosters in many ways, like encouraging exercise, providing companionship, building self-confidence, and creating a routine. Here are some real-life examples:
'It feels really good to be depended on and to be so important in Alfie's life' – Pat, from Newport, S. Wales
Pat has a four-year-old Miniature Schnauzer/ Yorkshire Terrier cross called Alfie. As an OAP with a solitary lifestyle, she appreciates the social benefits of being a pet parent. While walking Alfie, Pat meets other dog walkers regularly and looks forward to chatting with them. Pat explained ‘Before I had a dog, I would have little or no motivation to go for a walk on my own. I would spend a lot of time indoors, sometimes not seeing anyone from one day to the next.’ Alfie has helped motivate Pat to get active, as well as giving her retired life more purpose and establishing a daily routine and healthy lifestyle. The regular polite exchanges with other dog owners have led to firm friendships. While their furry friends were the initial conversation starter, they now chat about themselves, too, sharing everyday problems and health issues. While Pat is grateful to have Alfie in her life, Alfie is just as appreciative. Being an important part of his life boosts Pat's self-esteem and makes her feel valued.
‘Patrick has proven to be something of a life-saver since I got him during the pandemic’ – Sammi, from Barry, S. Wales
For Sammi, like many of us, the period of national lockdown was a challenging time. He was working from home, and apart from logging on, he had no reason to get up in the morning. Sammi explained how alone he felt, saying, 'I felt forgotten. The silence was deafening. I had no reason to leave the house. I had no reason to smile’. Finally, he adopted a Cocker Spaniel puppy named Patrick, and things started looking up. ‘Patrick changed my life. He gave me a reason to get up, a reason to get out, a reason to smile’. Sammi benefited from the companionship of dog ownership but also the motivation, uplift, and sense of routine, which had been missing when he was facing lockdown life alone.
Sammi’s story isn’t the only one, of course. A study has shown that people who owned pets during lockdown suffered less from loneliness and had better mental health. You can read about the study here.
‘Roxy is blind, so she’s completely reliant on us. Giving her the care she needs is very fulfilling’ – Judith, from Abergavenny, S. Wales
Judith is a pet parent to an eight-year-old jack Russell terrier named Roxy. Roxy had a genetic condition that caused her to lose her sight at just four-years-old, so she relies on Judith, and her husband, Hugh, to care for her and keep her safe. The complete trust that Roxy undoubtedly has in Judith and Hugh and the unconditional love she shows to them creates a sense of fulfilment and purpose. Roxy gives Judith the motivation to get out in the fresh air, whatever the weather. She admits, 'I might not have bothered otherwise, but I always feel better for it afterwards’. Judith also enjoys the excitement of planning dog-friendly holidays, explaining that ‘spending time researching dog-friendly beaches and lovely walks definitely adds something a little extra’. Of course, dogs truly are part of the family, and for this couple, a holiday isn’t a holiday without their furry family member.
Dogs can be very beneficial for the mental health, well-being, and quality of life of the people around them. If you’re wondering whether a canine companion could help boost your mood, reduce your anxiety, or help you get active, why not start by volunteering at your local rescue centre. Alternatively, you could accompany a friend on some of their dog walks or temporarily foster a rescue dog. After all, any amount of time spent with a dog can give you a boost until you’re certain you feel ready to welcome a dog into your life more permanently.