• Christina Iaboni

Dogs: (Wo)Man’s Best Friend and Promoter of Mental Health

Those of you that know me, know that I have worked in mental health for a long time. While I often talk and write about nutrition and mental health, there are many factors that can impact our mental health and well-being and one of them is interactions with animals! Today’s post is inspired by (and features) my brother, John Zavaglia. John has always been a dog lover, but it wasn’t until the last few years that he started to devote all his free time to rescuing dogs. Helping save these animals and get them into better homes has not only become his life’s passion but has also helped him improve his overall mental health and well-being and find true happiness.

John and Pumba

I think most pet owners are aware of the benefits of having a dog, they bring them joy, a devoted and loyal companion, and are full of cuddles, how could these things not be good for mental health? But there are a few other benefits as well! Research1,2 as shown the following benefits from human-animal interactions (most studies are done with dogs):

  • Reduced risk of depression and promotion of positive mood

  • Helping manage our response to stress – studies have shown lower levels of cortisol (a hormone released in response to stress) as well as lower heart rate and blood pressure when measured in response to a stressful situation

  • Pets help increase serotonin and dopamine – two neurotransmitters that are important for our mental and help us “feel good” and promote calmness and relaxation

  • Reduced self-reported fear and anxiety

  • Enhanced empathy

  • Improvements in social attention, behavior, and interpersonal interactions

  • Reduced aggression

Many of these benefits are thought to occur through the hormone oxytocin1, which is released when humans interact with animals. This is the same hormone that is released when mothers give birth and is thought to help them bond with their infants; men also produce this hormone.

Most dogs also require lots of walking which is a powerful motivator to get owners outdoors and walking too. Exercise not only has physical health benefits, but research has shown it also it helps with depression, anxiety and stress management3.

I asked my brother a few questions to include a more personal look at the mental health promoting benefits of human-animal interactions and this is what he had to share:

John’s squad

1. What is the most rewarding part of interacting with dogs.

This is an easy one. A dog lives in the “now”. They appreciate every moment, and they live in that moment fully. The reward is to be constantly reminded of being mindful and providing ample opportunities for it. This world moves so fast and for many it can be overwhelming. But when I am out, walking my dog in the woods, it is just myself, the dogs and the forest. They take me off the beaten path. I get to explore the forest in the moment. It is a much-needed break from the stress of everyday life and a good reset of the mind.

John is spot on with the research on this one! There is lots of literature about the importance of mindfulness and that dogs can help us to be more mindful and live in the present moment. By focusing on the present, you may find yourself less caught up with everyday stressors and worries4. For more on mindfulness with dogs, check out this article from Harvard Health.

2. How do you perceive your physical or mental health to have changed since owning/rescuing dogs? Well it is no secret having a dog helps keep you in shape physically. I have a few dogs and I do a lot of walking with them. I find that dogs have a way of forcing happiness out of you when you’re having a rough time. They have such an innocent goofiness to them. It’s really hard to not smile around a dog that loves you. And they know when you’re down, and they come and help.

3: What advice do you have for people who are thinking of getting dogs?

I would say to think long and hard about where you see yourself and your life going over the course of the next 10 to 15 years and make sure a dog would fit in with that plan. Do your homework on dog ownership. Manage your expectations (your dog isn’t going to show up like the famous dogs on social media, and will take a long time to get there) and be prepared to put in the work that it takes to train a dog properly. A dog can be the greatest blessing in your life but like any relationship it takes a constant effort. And it’s so worth it!

If you are thinking of getting a dog, here are a few other researched health benefits; in a 2008 study5, Headey et. al. found that dog owners reported had higher self-reported fitness and health, exercised more often, slept better, and took fewer days off work than non-dog owners!

In today’s stress-filled world, owning a pet can help improve our mental health and help us live in the moment. Practicing mindfulness with our pets can shift our focus to enjoying little things in life. While we certainly have big things going on, it is important to take time to appreciate and find joy in everyday moments like going for a walk and enjoying the fresh air, cuddles, and just having fun playing fetch.

Are you a dog owner? Leave a comment below and tell us how pets impact your health. If you don’t already follow John on social media, catch him on Instagram

References: 1. Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: the possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in psychology, 3, 234. 2. The Health and Mood-Boosting Benefits of Pets. HelpGuide. Retrieved November 27, 2020 3. The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise. HelpGuide. Retrieved November 28, 2020 4. Mindfulness and your Dog. . Retrieved November 27, 2020 5. 0’Headey B., Na F., Zheng R. (2008). Pet dogs benefit owners’ health: a “natural experiment” in China. Soc. Indic. Res. 84, 481–49310.1007/s11205-007-9142-2

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