How do therapy dogs help with depression?
Anyone who has ever owned a dog will know the companionship and comfort they can bring to their human owners.
Dogs are very special creatures, which is why they are used more and more to help treat people with mental health issues, including depression.
Simply stroking a dog can help improve your mood and calm you down, one boy told Mind.org
“Just the simple touch of his fur was enough to leave me feeling much calmer than I was before.”
However, it’s not just psychosomatic; there’s a real chemical reaction involved. According to in-depth research collated by the US National Library of Medicine, human-animal interactions release a chemical called oxytocin (often referred to as the love hormone). Hugging and stroking stimulate its release, helping us to feel better.
We propose that the activation of the oxytocin system plays a key role in the majority of these reported psychological and psychophysiological effects of HAI. (Human-Animal Interactions).
As a result, many organisations focused on supporting those with mental health problems have started to offer specially trained therapy dogs to help individuals cope with their depression using this calm, healing approach.
How do therapy dogs help with depression?
A therapy dog is specially trained to help people who suffer from depression in various ways. They provide relief, support and companionship, vital for those who find it challenging to cope with day-to-day life and the emotional roller coaster of depression.
New research from MORE TH>N Pet Insurance reveals that overall, three in five (60%) pet owners claim their animals have helped to improve their mental health.
In the survey of 2,000 pet owners, three quarters (77%) say their pets improved their overall quality of life. Additionally, 37% said the presence of an animal makes them feel calm, and one third (33%) feel noticeably less stressed.
Let’s look at some of the benefits of having a therapy dog
First and foremost, a dog can help combat loneliness, both a symptom and a trigger for depression. Having a dog by your side means you don’t have to do things by yourself. Panic can set in at the thought of going out, travelling or simply opening the door to a visitor. A trained therapy dog will know when you need more support and behave accordingly to remain calm and responsive to your needs.
• A sense of purpose
Caring for an animal is a full-time commitment, and while this may appear daunting at first, a sense of purpose is proven to be an effective treatment in helping with depression.
For example, if you know you must get out of bed because the dog needs to be fed or walked, your purpose becomes greater than your immediate need (especially if that need is to hide away or isolate yourself). Ideally, over time, your sense of purpose grows, and you begin to have more good days than bad ones with the help and support of your therapy dog.
• A positive daily routine
Building your day around your dog is a great start to help put a routine in place so that you are comfortable with the tasks you know you have to do. Symptoms of depression include lack of interest, putting things off, and not wanting to do anything. Even the smallest of routines can help lift your mood and boost your desire to participate in everyday activities.
In the morning: Get up, eat breakfast, then walk the dog.
In the evening: Walk the dog, eat dinner, then go to bed.
It’s a simple but manageable pattern that you can focus on achieving every day.
• Boost your mood and inspire positive thoughts
Your dog will always be happy to see you; even when you wake in the morning, your therapy dog will be ready to greet you with a wonderful cuddle, stroke and wagging tail.
What is Deep Pressure Stimulation?
‘Deep Pressure Stimulation (DPS) is a tactile stimulation provided as gentle pressure to the body via tugging, stroking, cuddling or wrapping, relaxing the nervous system. It can be applied through different devices: massage tools, hands, swaddles, or Psychiatric Service Dogs, specially trained to provide deep pressure therapy. If the therapy has been provided properly, it has an organizing and calming effect on the nervous system and makes the recipient feel calm and peaceful.’
• They are responsive to our moods and distract us from negative behaviours.
Trained therapy dogs are highly tuned to low mood levels and will even respond with snuggles and snuffles, physically putting themselves between their human and their negative behaviour. For example, highly trained therapy dogs will know that if you are crying, screaming, rocking or banging your head, they will need to distract you and help prevent that behaviour. Gently and calmly, the dog will begin to push his face and nose close into you and help you focus on them, rather than your pain.
‘My little fluff ball is one of the most sensitive beings I know. As soon as my mind starts to race and I can feel that ball of anxiety rising, he is right there and ready to face it with me. He can spend hours just spread out next to me while I hug him, and stroking his fur is incredibly helpful. Most of all, he gave my daily life routine and purpose.’
Feedback from a therapy dog recipient on Mind.org.
• Someone you can trust to share your feelings
Dogs are ’a man’s best friend’, and their loyalty is legendary, which is why they are ideal for confiding inand sharing your darkest feelings at times of worry or stress. Simply, sharing your thoughts with another living creature can often feel like a weight has been lifted, and your therapy dog is the ideal listener as they are trained to remain calm and respond if you become overwhelmed or upset.
A testimonial from a child on the Mind.org website demonstrates the difference his therapy dog made to his everyday life.
“Over the next decade and a half, I confided in him more than I did anyone else. He knew my secrets, my fears, everything. In fact, there are things I told him that I will never tell anyone else, because he was my best friend. It wasn’t just because of the oxytocin (sometimes called the love hormone) that was released when I hugged him, or when he came to me when I cried, it’s also because he never judged me for feeling the way I did, or acting out because of it.”
• Increases mental stimulation
Having someone else around, including animals, helps keep your mind active and alert. It can go a long way to preventing a negative cycle of unbroken thoughts which swim around our heads without interruption. Therapy dogs will provide distraction without disruption and help you to meet and chat with other people while you’re out and about walking.
Walking or even running with your dog will benefit both of you with positive energy.
Exercise helps release endorphins, the feel-good chemical that boosts your mood and helps you feel better physically and emotionally. Dogs can help you get moving and get motivated in all aspects of your life.
“As a high energy dog, I knew I had to take him out for a few hours a day, and the difference in how I felt was amazing. I had more energy, was happier, and life didn’t seem as dark and crushing as it had before.”
Who can benefit from a therapy dog?
People of all ages will benefit from having a therapy dog. Mind.org has many cases of individuals from young children to more senior recipients living with depression or mental health issues. They are beginning to live their lives again with the aid of their furry friend, whereas before, they would have been too anxious or overwhelmed.
While many people are lucky enough to have a therapy dog living with them, you can benefit from regular visits if you cannot take care of a dog full-time.
Regular visitors to care homes, hospitals, young people’s residences and even prisons, therapy dogs are fast becoming an essential part of short and long-term treatment to help support people with depression and other mental health issues.
Where can I get a therapy dog from?
There are many brilliant organisations in the UK and across Europe that match people with their amazing therapy dogs. For example, Pets as Therapy, or PAT as they are affectionately known, are a UK based charity focused on helping people manage their mental health and live more enriched and fulfilling lives.
And if you’ve already got a dog, you can enrol them in therapy training school to help support and care for you to manage your mental health positively.