Your dog as your therapist? How your family pet supports your mental wellbeing.

There are great benefits to having a pet in your family. For some time, the health benefits of animals have been promoted for reducing stress and increasing social and physical activity. But more and more research backs up what those of us with dogs already know - that our dogs can understand us, know how to cheer us up, and give us unconditional love. 

Love and compassion

Want to get a giant hug from your dog? Look them in the eye. Eye contact from your dog is their way of telling you they love you. When we make eye contact with our canine friends, it stimulates the same neurotransmitter response in both human and dog that occurs between human parents and infants. This stimulation of oxytocin creates a positive feedback loop that increases the emotional bond between you, as well as contributing to reduced stress and anxiety. And much like people and the sense of security we feel when near to our loved ones, the heart rates of both dogs and their people reduce when they are reunited after time apart. 

Empathy

It is these connections that provide a foundation for the many emotional benefits of family pets. Children can learn empathy from their pets, as they recognise body language, and learn to put themselves in their pet’s ‘shoes’ in order to anticipate their needs. 

Self-esteem and emotional insight

‘Unconditional positive regard’ is the foundation of psychotherapy. Who else provides this better than our dogs? For children (and big children as well), this helps to build self-esteem. Their furry friend provides a non-judgmental listening ear to hear them express complex emotions. This might be an opportunity for them to work out just how they’re feeling about a situation, to work through new emotions, or express things that might be too difficult to say in front of others. There are wonderful programs recruiting dog volunteers to listen to children read. With the patience and complete absence of judgment dogs can bring, children can build confidence to try something that can be quite scary.

Mindfulness

For children and adults alike, pets can force us to move, and force us to be still. Especially now with the cold weather setting in, getting out and moving with the dog provides us with the many positive benefits of physical activity. But when life gets busy, your dog knows that any time is a good time to just sit down and have a rest. Your dog never sits down and thinks about what it should be doing instead – when it’s time for cuddle, this is the only, and most important, thing to be done. We can learn from this ability to be 100% present and committed to whatever it is we’re doing. Use your time sitting on the couch with your dog as an opportunity for a mindfulness exercise – practice mindfulness of touch and physical sensation, focus on the rhythm of the dog’s breath or heartbeat. The possibilities of canine mindfulness are endless.

 

Dogs have been our companions and friends for thousands of years, and it’s wonderful that we’re starting to recognise the depth of what they give us. Stare into those eyes and say thanks!