Are dogs REALLY good for your mental health?

Kate Cann

I wake up to a sound that just barely registers at the edge of my mind. A flurry of movement under the comforter and a bark accompany it. I fell asleep before my husband came home from work, and a glance at the alarm clock suddenly frays my nerves — there’s no way the dogs are greeting him, not this early. It’s probably nothing. Then again…

Just as the anxiety takes off, there’s a barely-audible mew that alerts me to one of the cats at the bedside, seeking to make up for cuddle time I must have somehow denied her during reasonable waking hours. Of course, my realization doesn’t really translate to my bedmates. They were in the same situation as I was, though woken by some sound beyond human ears or the barest scent of a threat instead of the growling alarm. I reach an arm out across both my 10-pound bodyguards to quiet them, but Annie is an American Eskimo mix with energy to spare (in spite of only having one hip) and does her best to lunge, half-playfully warding off the intruding kitty. Their ancestors have been helping to guard mine for over 30,000 years, so it’s easy to forgive a little overzealousness here and there. 

Once the sun comes up and my husband is out the door the following morning, I find bright eyes staring back at me from the other side of the mattress. All we’re doing is getting out of bed, something I wasn’t going to bother to do before Harley – my imposing, six-inch-tall dachshund nurse – woke up and stuck her cold nose against my throat. Before I say anything, her tail sets off wagging, and there’s a palpable energy, an eagerness I could only hope to match on my best day. My dogs will forever be one of the most positive, driving influences in my life, and I know I’m not alone in saying that.

One of the best parts of dog ownership is having a friend you NEVER worry about judging you. I feel I can already count on my closer friends not to (or if they do, not to hold it against me), but there’s always that little pinch of social paranoia with human interaction. Face-to-face, there are a hundred things to over analyze with the people we love, and I can read too much into almost any body language or tone of voice.

There’s no scowl over those button eyes when I need to set my head down on my desk for a minute or hide in bed for a little while mid-afternoon. There’s no misreading, worrying about their quiet judgment – my dogs don’t bother hiding it when they’re sad, stressed, scared or overstimulated. It’s some of the most truly honest interaction you can have. Don’t mistake that attitude for simplicity, either, because every animal has its own personality, and you grow to love them as unconditionally as they do you. That’s mostly because relaxing, playing and being happy (And, for the cats, plotting the next soul they’ll devour) are the primary hobbies for the smaller members of the household. Of course, that lack of scrutiny could be the appeal to nearly any house pet, but with dogs, we get the unconditional loyalty and the emotional connection that comes from thousands of years of history between our species. It’s in their genetics to be family/pack’ members and do their part – which, for most modern dogs, means merely existing. They’re essentially focused on food, fun and you.

For starters, dog owners have lower cholesterol and fewer indicators of heart trouble. Spending time with animals can have a profound effect on everything from your blood pressure to your confidence, among a seemingly endless list of other benefits most pet owners would chime in to add to.

Just ten minutes with your dog will significantly raise levels of oxytocin (a calming hormone) in both your bodies, which elevates your mood in turn. If you’ve got children – or maybe kids are in your future – your little ones get the benefit that time spent bonding with animals provides to their development into more even, balanced young adults. That’s not to mention the contact aiding their immune systems and helping to ward off future allergens.

If you get nervous in social situations – whether you’ve got genuine social anxiety or just don’t fancy yourself much of a ‘people person’ – your pet can be a great icebreaker. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been stopped (or stopped someone) while walking our dogs, even if it’s just for a stranger to reminisce on a long-passed pet they were reminded of. You’re also sharing common interests with an incredible group of people — the majority of animal lovers are incredibly caring, varied individuals from all walks of life. You’re immediately part of a kind and vast community of generally fantastic folks with a common bond: The very same kind of love I’m writing about.

All of this said you, shouldn’t run out to adopt a pet as some miracle cure for stress instead of a medical consultation. Also, bear in mind your personal financial situation — Animal care isn’t cheap, and we’re talking about a living creature that relies on you, not an iPad you can leave on the shelf and come back to when the mood strikes. Being unprepared will only lead to the gut-wrenching reality of having to re-home your best friend for their benefit, and that’s not something either of you should have to endure.

Dogs aren’t for everybody, either – there’s no shame in not being a ‘dog person.’ I’ve also enjoyed keeping fish as a calming hobby, and kept a small aquarium beside my bed to relax me when I stopped taking over-the-counter sleep aids.

Sure, part of my routine has become managing a tiny hurricane of chew toys, poo bags and stray hairs in the nose. The positives outweigh the inconveniences by too much to ignore, though, and the next time I stub my toe on the doggie ramp attached to the end of my bed at 3 AM, I’ll do my best to remember my words here.

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