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Canine Companions and Mental Health

Dogs are for life

Canine Companions and Mental Health

Dogs can be our closest companions, our solid and furry partner in the world. They help get us up when we aren’t motivated to do so. Get us into the fresh air because they need to walk. Focus on something other than ourselves. Give us a sense of responsibility and meaning. There to cuddle, stroke and laugh at when they are silly.

As you can tell I am a dog person, a complete canine lover.

The link between contact with a dog and improved mental health is a subject that has had a lot of attention. In fact, the sale of puppies during pandemic lockdowns has been astronomical, with the UK Kennel Club experiencing a 140% increase in puppy enquiries. According to a Statistica survey 30% of dogs bought were from dog breeders, who have reported an increase in their waiting lists, which they cannot fulfil, potentially leading to an increase in puppies bought from less reputable breeders and puppy farmers. Sadly, we are yet to see whether this increase also brings an increase in dogs in shelters down the line, but that is a subject for another day.

So, what is it that about these beauties that has such an impact on us and why has a pandemic urged more of us to bring a dog into our homes?

People who have dogs will overwhelming say they love them. But dogs can also bring stress and difficulty. They can be naughty, pull on the lead, chew things they shouldn’t, go to the toilet in the house, and generally be into everything! Then once your heart is full of love for your furry companion, you lose them. The grief can envelop you in all the same gut wrenching ways it can the loss of another human. So, dogs are by no means an “easy” option for supporting our mental health. As the number of dogs in shelters in need of a home will testify to. Of course, the reason for dogs needing to be rehomed are many and complex, but owners surrendering their dogs because they can no longer care for them or manage their doggy behaviours are among those complex reasons. Yet we remain a nation of dog lovers with 25% of UK households having at least 1 dog as reported by Statistica survey.

The research on whether a dog does bring about human health benefits has been mixed. However, there is a growing fan base of the therapeutic effects of dog ownership, and I admit to being one such fan.

Dogs behaviourists have identified that dogs can tune into our emotions, they can feel our “vibe”, reading our body language, tone of voice and energy. Dogs can comfort you when you have tears flowing down your face, whilst bringing a smile to that same face with their antics. When I’m not feeling at my best, I know a moment of calm with my dogs soothes me, and when they are running around playing and encouraging me to join them, my mind leaves problems on a shelf for later. All of this would be considered positive for mental health.

In a study looking at cardiovascular disease and dog ownership there was shown to be a reduction in cardiovascular disease when the owner was single, with a query about whether this could be due to the role of dog walking falling to the individual, rather than shared across a household. They also cited the fact that dog ownership brings the benefit of reduced stress, which in turn is thought to have a positive impact on blood pressure and therefore heart disease. Reducing stress in our modern world and finding ways to negotiate through the trials and tribulations of life does wonders for our overall mental and physical health.

Connection is vital for humans and is one of several factors that can influence isolation and loneliness, usually impacting negatively on our mental health. The connection and bond between human and dog can be just as meaningful as connections between people. Researchers reviewed evidence in 2005 between owning a pet and human health. Broadening the concept of health, the benefits included increasing social contact and the relationship itself between canine and human, both considered positive for our mental health. The companionship dogs offer us, for very little in return, has been credited by dog lovers as saving them.

Interestingly a study of the belief that companion animal ownership can help reduce loneliness in 2007 found no empirical evidence that companion animal acquisition helped to alleviate loneliness. So why is it that those of us with pets think that they do? The researchers suggested some theories, such as the structure that sharing our lives with our pets may offer, which means we don’t focus as much on a feeling of loneliness. Or that we feel generally better when we’re with our pets, which we experience as reduced loneliness.

As the research is expanding on the link between human mental health and dogs, and understanding the mechanisms that support dog owners assertions that our dogs improve our lives and our mental health, our furry friends are increasingly recognised in clinical settings as therapeutic. The ability to read our moods, release comforting hormones by their touch helping reduce anxiety.

Mindfulness has become quite a fashionable therapy, and the evidence is fast backing up the benefits to improving health and mental resilience. As part of the Healthbeat series Harvard Health Publishing noted the benefits of owning a dog include the offering of a mindful walk with you dog, that is focused on the moment, being with your dog, paying attention to what is happening in the present, on purpose and without judgment of any thoughts or sensations. Dogs are considered the ultimate in mindfulness practice as they naturally live in each moment, especially if that moment is with their favourite human!

With all the above indicating that dogs are good for us, would I recommend getting a dog to someone else? No.

What? I hear you cry!

Dogs are not just a health benefit, they are living creatures with their own needs, and let’s be frank and honest…there are times when they can be difficult to live with after they’ve chewed through the second sofa you’ve bought and don’t come back when you let them off the lead. As a fellow dog owner commented whilst out walking her dogs “dogs really have a way of making you look a complete idiot!”. Dogs needs training, positive reinforcement, encouragement, confidence building, health checks and maintenance, and so importantly, they need your time. Like any relationship we have to consider not only our own needs but also that of our beautiful furry companions. That’s why dogs are not for Christmas or pandemic lockdowns, they are for life. But if you’re prepared for having a dog for life and meeting it’s needs, then I would say it’s one of the most incredibly fulfilling relationships you can have.

References and further information

Gilbey, A., McNicholas, J. and Collis, G. M. (2007) A longitudinal test of the belief that companion animal ownership can help reduce loneliness. Anthrozoos, 20(4) 345-353

Healthbeat (2015) Mindfulness and your dog. Harvard Health Publishing. Harvard Medical School

McNicholas, J., Gilbey, A., Rennie, A., Ahmedzai, S, Dono, J. and Ormerod, E. (2005) Pet ownership and human health: a brief review of the evidence and issues. BMJ, 331(7527), 1252 – 1254

Mubanga, M., Byberg, L., Nowak, C., Eganvall, A., Magnusson P. K., Ingelsson, E. and Fall T. (2017) Dog ownership and the risk of cardiovascular disease and death – a nationwide cohort study. Scientific Reports, 7(15821)

Statistica

https://www.statista.com/statistics/515333/dogs-ownership-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/

https://www.statista.com/statistics/541079/dog-getting-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/

UK Kennel Club where you can find a puppy through the assured breeder scheme

https://www.thekennelclub.org.uk/

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Joanna Ellison
See all posts by Joanna Ellison