The Pursuit of Happiness Through the Pursuit of a Tail: Dogs and Mental Health

Everyone has down days. Sometimes life’s burdens just get to you, and you hit a little slump. For other people the problem can be more long term and rooted in underlying issues. Regardless of which group you fall into, mental health and well-being is something everyone should take seriously. While there are many aspects of mental of health, most people find dog ownership to be beneficial to their well-being and general mind state. With our busy lives, sometimes it can be hard to take care of yourself in the way you need to, even when you have the best intentions. Dog ownership provides a structure for you to mutually support both yourself and another. Owning a dog provides many mental health advantages, some perhaps more surprising than others.


Studies have shown that owning a dog is correlated with a decrease in stress and anxiety levels. Simply spending a little time with a furry companion each day has been shown to improve general mood. Additionally, long term dog ownership is associated with lower levels of depression. The bonds we form with our dogs over time are a reciprocal relationship, but one in which we benefit from both sides; while we receive the loyalty and companionship dogs provide, providing for your dog can also give a sense of purpose.


One of the reasons dogs are so good at lifting our moods is their empathy. Dogs and humans have had a co-dependent relationship through much of our history together, and the long-term link between our species has left dogs with an ability to sense human moods and emotions much more strongly than most other animals. This facet of behavior is known as emotional cognition, and studies have proven that the many centuries humans have spent cohabiting with dogs have given dogs the ability to read human faces, gestures, and expressions and intuit our general mood from that information.  Because dogs can read our mood so well and sense between good and bad emotions, they can often tell when our mood is down and reciprocate to help lift our spirits.


Owning a dog also has several knock-on benefits that can indirectly boost your mental well-being. Dogs require exercise, from simple playtime to walks outside. Physical activity, even minor amounts, is known to release endorphins, the name for a group of hormones released by your brain that are known to improve mood (among other things). Dog ownership is also associated with improved cardiovascular health, with effects such as lower cholesterol and decreased blood pressure. The long-term additional exercise that is gained from owning a dog can improve your physical fitness, and physical fitness has a positive correlation with mental wellness independent of other effects that dogs may provide.


Dogs also provide a great reason to socialize with other people. Lack of human interaction is linked with depressive episodes. Being with your dog while out on a walk or at a dog park provides chances for conversation with people where both of you already have a common interest; everyone loves dogs, and people love to chat about theirs and ask you about yours. According to one study, people who walk their dogs four times per week or more were more likely to report feeling a strong sense of community from the connections they had made while out and about. Feeling the support of others around is strongly linked with good mental health.

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