In Loving Memory of Sonny and Sara: 6 Ways Dogs Help Depression


training-lab-puppiesThis year my husband and I have lost both of our Labrator-Chow mixes They were 14 years old, so we knew it was coming, but you’re never really ready for that feeling of emptiness or hollowness you feel when they leave 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 (who we lost nine months ago) here are just six ways dogs improve 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, M.D. mentions a recent study where nursing home residents in St. Louis felt less lonely with some quiet time with a dog alone than a visit with both a dog and other residents.

The study enrolled 37 nursing home residents who scored high on a loneliness scale and who 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 that 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-lettered 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. The 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 needs some preparation and forethought.

6. Dogs lower our blood pressure.

Research shows that dog owners have significantly lower blood pressure and heart rate both before and while performing stressful mental tasks — like, say, performing a family intervention or supervising kids’ homework, that people’s blood pressure drops when they 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.

Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

Image: labradortrainingnet

Join the conversation on Project Beyond Blue, the new community for persons with depression.

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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10 Responses
  1. Sandi

    In Loving Memory came at the right time. My 12 yr old Yorkie recently went into cardiac arrest. My dearly loved Yorkie came through a dental cleaning, but he never woke up. I am working through my emotions and trying to focus on the many years of joy instead of the empty place that has been left. Thank you.

    1. Mary Ellen

      I had two Yorkie sisters and I loved them so. I was always afraid to have their teeth cleaned because I’d heard of stories similar to yours, but finally I knew it needed to be done as their teeth were in bad shape. At 12 I decided to do one at a time. My first little Tinker came through it fine, but after a few days home, got very ill. She ultimately got ok, but it made me decide not to do Maggie. Thankfully, one lived to be 15 and the other almost. To this day I think of them everyday and love them so. It was the purest mutual love I’ve ever experienced. I’m too old to get another now and I’m mentally not in the right place, but I’m forever grateful for having them in my life.

      1. Mary Ellen

        Sandi, I’m 68 and a fairly new widow struggling with all that entails. Dogs can live 15 years or more sometimes. That would make me 83. I don’t know if I’ll live that long and I have no family or friends that would love and take care of a dog if I were to die. Plus I’d like to travel some before I get too old. I had the best in dogs and a husband and the timing just is no longer right. Maybe someday an elderly rescue…time will tell

      2. Sandi

        Thank you for your honesty. My condolences as well.
        I have been overthinking the same, but am leaning in the direction of making the decision to have the joy again.
        Thank you for your time and reply. I wish you well and peaceful days ahead.

  2. Kate

    My deepest sympathies to you and your husband on the loss of Sonny and Sara. I know how much it hurts. Rescuing my pup Suki and loving her the way I did saved me from the depths of depression and brought me some of the purest moments of happiness and joy I’ve ever known. Her untimely death brought me to my knees and the closest I’ve ever come to wanting to die (from guilt and total heartbreak and an overwhelming desire to be with her again). Almost two years after her death she still influences my life in profound ways. Because of her I’ve changed course professionally and am now pursuing a career in animal rights activism. Dogs are sentient beings.

  3. Robert

    It’s a shame that many of us are obliged in apartment blocks which usually have regulations whereby no pets – least of all dogs – are allowed for the residents. (Okay, perhaps the authorities in question would countenance a goldfish or two.)

    I can well believe dogs, of whatever breed, are valuable antidepressants by their very nature. Nice to have statistics and specialist medical findings confirming that.