Service and Therapy dogs are now an everyday part of our society. Whether they’re a passenger on our flight or a tenant in the apartment next door, service and therapy dogs are increasingly common in people’s lives. Science has shown pets, specifically dogs, have a positive impact not only on our inner dialogues but also on our connections to social networks, both of which play a significant role in depression and anxiety.
With depression affecting 40 million adults in the US, science shows a positive human-animal interaction produces measurable clinical effects in both the humans and animals, including not just a reduction in subjective psychological stress, such as fear and anxiety, but also an increase in oxytocin levels in the brain.
A Purdue University study exploring the value of pet ownership in mental health recovery concluded pets are a main source of support in their owner’s management of long-term mental health issues. In addition to pets encouraging activity, a method to manage depression, the study also found pets provided distractions from symptoms of mental health problems and from upsetting experiences, another method in managing depression.
For pet owners whose social network was limited or difficult, pets played an even more important role, the study revealed. Some pet owners experienced secure and intimate relationships only with their pets. While the study noticed pets were not incorporated into their owners’ mental health care plans, the investigators concluded pets should be incorporated into such plans.
Studies are not the only feedback on the role of pets in our lives. 74% of pet owners reported mental health improvements as a result of pet ownership in the Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) online survey of 2,000 pet owners, and 75% reported pet ownership improved the mental health of a friend or family member.
Pets inoculate their pet owners from social isolation, which is a risk factor for depression and anxiety. A separate Purdue study showed pet owners were more likely to get to know people in their neighborhood than non-pet owners. Friendships, which started as incidental interactions of getting to know the neighborhood via pets, became significant forms of support for pet owners. Dog owners were significantly more likely than owners of other types of pets to regard people whom they met through their pet as a friend.
An article in Frontiers in Psychology compiled a group of studies on Human Animal Interaction (HAI) showing the benefits dogs bring to lives they touch. In one study, researchers showed the company of a service dog facilitated friendly social attention, smiles, and conversation from others for persons in wheelchairs, a population at risk of social isolation.
Another study found a decrease in depression of elderly residents of a nursing home with a resident dog. Plus, they found a decrease in depression for elderly residents of a home with an animal visitation program.
More specifically, PTSD Dogs, service dogs trained for individuals living with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are trained to diminish anxiety and distress and provide psycho-emotional grounding by nudging, pawing, and leaning. Just as the Purdue study observed pets serving as distractions from unhealthy thoughts and unsettling experiences, PTSD dogs are trained to distract their owner from an event or from unhealthy behavior.
While the current mental health industry has yet to standardize the inclusion of pets, specifically dogs, in the mental health care plan of individuals, a person can still take it upon themselves to include a dog in their life to discover the mental health benefits, as well as to experience unconditional love.