My husband and I had to put down our Labrador-Chow mix this morning. He did exactly what his sister did nine months ago: went out to our backyard on a cold and rainy night and just stood there, with his tail down, and wouldn’t come back in. It’s as if they both knew it was their time and wanted to die in peace.
He was almost 15 years old, so we knew it was coming, but you’re never really ready for that feeling of emptiness or hollowness you feel when a pet leaves your life. Only then do you realize how much they gave to you.
Dogs, of course, are good for depression. Both of my dogs have helped me with my moods more than I thought was capable of things that don’t speak English. In loving memory of Sonny and his sister Sara, here are just six ways dogs enhance our mental health:
1. Dogs offer unconditional love and acceptance.
As far as we know, dogs are without opinions, critiques, and verdicts. Even if you smell like their poop, they will snuggle up next to you. In a Johns Hopkins Depression & Anxiety Bulletin, Karen Swartz, MD, mentions a recent study that found that nursing home residents in St. Louis felt less lonely when they spent quiet time with a dog alone than when they visited with a dog and other residents.
The study enrolled 37 nursing home residents who scored high on a loneliness scale and were interested in receiving weekly half-hour visits from dogs. Half of the residents had quiet time alone with the pooches. The other half shared the dog with other nursing home residents. Both groups said they felt less lonely after the visit, but the decrease in loneliness was much more significant among the residents who had the dogs all to themselves. In other words, at times we prefer our four-legged friends to our mouthy pals because we can divulge our innermost thoughts and not be judged.
2. Dogs alter our behavior.
Here’s a typical scenario back when we had dogs. I would come through the door in the evening and I’m annoyed. At what, I don’t know. A million little snafus that happened throughout the day. I am dangerously close to taking it out on someone. However, before I can do that, my Lab-Chow walks up to me and pats me, wanting some attention.
So I kneel down and pet her. She licks my face, and I smile. Voila! She altered my behavior. I am only agitated a little now and chances are much better that someone will not become a casualty of my frustrations. We calm down when we are with our dogs. We slow our breath, our speech, our minds. We don’t hit as many people or use as many four-letter words.
3. Dogs distract.
Dogs are like riveting movies and books. They take us out of our heads and into another reality — one that only involves food, water, affection, and maybe an animal butt — for as long as we can allow. I’ve found distraction to be the only effective therapy when you’ve hit a point where there is no getting your head back. It’s tough to ruminate about how awful you feel and will feel forever when your dog is breathing in your face.
4. Dogs promote touch.
The healing power of touch is undisputed. Research indicates a 45-minute massage can decrease levels of the stress hormone cortisol and optimize your immune system by building white blood cells. Hugging floods our bodies with oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress, and lowers blood pressure and heart rates. And, according to a University of Virginia study, holding hands can reduce the stress-related activity in the hypothalamus region of the brain, part of our emotional center. Touch can actually stop certain regions of the brain from responding to threat clues. It’s not surprising, then, that stroking a dog can lower blood pressure and heart rate and boost levels of serotonin and dopamine.
5. Dogs make us responsible.
With dogs come great responsibility, and responsibility — according to depression research — promotes mental health. Positive psychologists assert that we build our self-esteem by taking ownership of a task, by applying our skills to a job. When we succeed — i.e., the dog is still alive the next day — we reinforce to ourselves that we are capable of caring for another creature as well as ourselves. That’s why chores are so important in teaching adolescents self-mastery and independence.Taking care of a dog also brings structure to our day. Sleeping until noon is no longer a possibility unless you want to spend an hour cleaning up the next day. Staying out all night requires preparation and forethought.
6. Dogs lower our blood pressure.
Research shows that dog owners have significantly lower blood pressure and heart rates both before and while performing stressful mental tasks — like, say, performing a family intervention or supervising kids’ homework. Blood pressure also drops when people pet dogs, especially if it’s a dog they know and love. Dog petting can also bring improvement in a person’s immune system and ease pain. It seems as though a dog’s mere presence is beneficial.