More than Best Friends: Dogs and Our Mental Health

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Tell me how you’re feeling.

Ok, look at this.


K-9 Comfort Dog golden retriever puppy

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

Now, how are you feeling?

If you just smiled and let out a bit of tension with thoughts of, “awwwwww,” congratulations, you are human.

For thousands of years, humans have cultivated relationships with dogs.  Though controversial, some scientists even theorize that humans domesticated dogs long before they began settling into groups and cultivating agriculture. No matter when it began, the strong bond that developed between human and canine continues to evolve.  The more we get to know our four-legged companions, the more we love them.  One very good reason why:  Dogs are good for our mental health.

We’re Stressed

Much of ”normal life” these days consists of navigating economic collapse, financial hardship, natural disaster, human tragedies…  And that’s just before we leave the house.  Buckling down to manage the stresses of our individual lives on top of these — school, work, family – well, it’s no wonder that as a nation we are burned out and stressed out.

How Dogs Help Fight Stress

  • Providing sensory stress relief.   A few years ago, researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia conducted a study which revealed hormonal changes that occur in humans when they interact with dogs.  Specifically, petting a dog for a few minutes activates serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin (the “feel good” hormones).  At the same time, levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, decrease.  This discovery has led experts to believe that therapy involving dogs could go far in helping people cope with stress-related disorders, as well as depression.

We’re Depressed

A 2011 study by the Centers for Disease Control found that 1 in 10 adults in the U.S. reported symptoms of depression.  The National Institute for Mental Health Reports that “Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44.”  Additionally, “Major depressive disorder affects approximately 14.8 million American adults, or about 6.7 percent of the U.S. population age 18 and older in a given year.”  With numbers like that, it is no wonder that more people than ever are seeking relief from an ever-increasing spectrum of pharmaceuticals.  As it turns out, a major weapon in the battle against depression is already living in our homes.

How Dogs Help Fight Depression

  • Companionship.  Depression is an isolating disease that can make you pull away from friends, family and society in general.  Having a dog provides you with unconditional acceptance and helps you feel like you are not alone.
  • “Uncomplicated” love.  Relationships with human family and friends can be complex.  Relationships with dogs are simple.  They love you, and want to be near you, no matter what.  You are free to experience your feelings, unencumbered by well-intentioned, but unsolicited, advice.  “Pets offer an unconditional love that can be very helpful to people with depression,” says Ian Cook, MD, a psychiatrist and director of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA.
K-9 Comfort dog and elderly lady

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

  • Routine.  No matter how depressed you are, your dog needs to eat, walk and go to the bathroom.  Sticking to your dog’s schedule can help you stay on track as well.
  • Responsibility. Depression makes even the smallest tasks seem insurmountable.  But if your dog has only you to rely on for his needs, it helps focus your attention on something besides yourself.  ”Taking care of a pet can help give you a sense of your own value and importance,” Cook says.
  • Exercise.  If you have a dog, sooner or later he will need a walk.  Just getting outside for a few minutes of fresh air and physical activity is good for your mental health.
  • Touch. As humans, we crave touch.  In addition to releasing ”feel good” hormones, petting your dog lowers your heart rate.  Cuddling and caressing a dog promotes a sense of wellbeing, and just plain makes us feel better.
K-9 Comfort Dogs surrounding little girl

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

  • Social interaction. Having a dog is an instant conversation starter when you find yourself around other dog lovers on a walk or at the vet.  Talking about your pet is a non-threatening way to engage with other people, which can help fight the isolation that depression brings.

Deep Down, We Already Knew

There are many examples in practice of dogs helping humans feel better.  These photos are of the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs, a group of certified therapy dogs and handlers based out of Illinois.  This group travels to areas that have experienced tragedies in order to lend a comforting presence, which they believe can lead to healing. From their mission statement:  “A dog is a friend who brings a calming influence, allowing people to open up their hearts and receive help for what is affecting them.”

Comfort dogs are here

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

Comfort dogs Sandy Hook

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

Comfort dog with little boy

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

Comfort dogs boston

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

Comfort first responders

First responders need comfort too. Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

Other groups, such as Pets For Vets, Pets for Patriots, K-9′s for Warriors and Soldier’s Best Friend, have realized that dogs can be a lifeline for military veterans struggling with physical disabilities, or mental and emotional issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  These groups take dogs (often from shelters), train them to be service dogs, and pair them with a vet whose needs match that dog’s skill set; effectively saving two lives at once.

service dog female pit bull

Photo courtesy of Soldier’s Best Friend’s Facebook page

Increasingly, certified therapy dogs are also making appearances on college campuses during finals week, providing students with a much-needed mental health break.

black lab therapy dog with college students

Picture courtesy of

comfort dogs with college students

Photo courtesy of

Groups like Pets Unstressing Passengers (PUPS) are now welcomed at airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami and beyond, to help calm frustrated travelers.

Pets Unstressing Passengers LAX

Photo courtesy of

Closer to home, pets in my dog-friendly office provide a quick moment of decompression in the work day.

young woman hugging pit mix

Quick hug and then back to work!

young man hugging pit mix

Seriously – this dog needs to get back to work.

And meanwhile, perhaps at your house…

white shnoodle being cuddled

No stress here!

Ask just about anyone who lives with a dog, and I am sure they will tell you their dog makes their life better.  It is fantastic that science is finally catching up with what dog parents everywhere already knew – dogs just make us happy!

Comfort dog senior center

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

Comfort dog young couple

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

Comfort golden retriever puppy

Photo courtesy of LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs’ Facebook page

Now go hug your dog!

Has your dog helped you through a difficult time?  Tell us, and don’t forget to post pictures on our Facebook page so we can all share the “awwwwww”!


If you, or someone you know, is struggling with depression or other mental health issues, please reach out to one of these resources:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

WebMD’s Online Depression Resources

Resources for Veterans




1 Response

  1. Jessica says:

    Thank you for sharing this valuable information about dogs. It’s true pets and especially dogs make a difference when your experiencing difficulties. My dog “Nena” always puts a smile on my face and gives me endless kisses when I walk through the door. Such a great feeling.