Miriam Akhtar, MAPP from the University of East London, runs Positive Psychology Training, which provides courses, coaching, and communication in the science. Miriam is the author of Positive Psychology for Overcoming Depression and the co-producer of The Happiness Training Plan. Twitter: @pospsychologist. Full bio.
Miriam's articles for PositivePsychologyNews.com are here.
The arrival of the First Dog, Bo, into his new kennels at the White House, has got me thinking this month about how our canine companions contribute to our well-being. Amongst my friends for instance, three of them directly attribute their recovery from depression to getting a dog. So why is it that dogs seem to succeed where often anti-depressants or therapy fail? I took a straw poll amongst my pals to gain insight into how their pets have helped them into the plus scale of the well-being continuum.
Having a dog made me feel better because I had a dependent, the dog needs you to take it out and feed it. The dog gives you love and you have something to love in return. Dogs are upbeat, they’re enthusiastic and when your dog is wagging its tail looking forward to the next thing, you can’t help but be taken somewhere else in your mood. ~ Molly
I can honestly say that getting Sabbi was a significant part of healing for me after my father died. I had lost interest in the world, gained lots of weight, lost confidence and stopped socializing. Getting Sabbi ensured I had to walk her outside each day which had a twofold benefit; it connected me to nature which was very nourishing and it got me exercising again so I gradually started to lose the weight and gain a desire to interact with the world around me again. ~ Noni
What I realized was that getting a dog helped me not to fall back into depression. I had to look after something. It’s the responsibility that made the difference. I’ve got to look after somebody else and so I have to look after myself. ~ Jo B
It was kindly pointed out to me the other day that my lurcher Bob is in fact my longest male relationship! Currently 10 years, not only is he loyal, dependable and trustworthy, he is kind and loves me 100% unconditionally. Of course he helps with my well-being! ~ Jo G
In these individualistic times with solo living and social isolation on the rise, dogs have a particular role to play in enhancing well-being. Having a dog to look after distracts from rumination. Walking the dog not only has physical benefits but leads to social interaction – my friends can barely get around the park without half a dozen conversations with other dog-walkers, something that simply doesn’t happen without a dog. We know good relationships to be one of the keys to a happy life, and the relationship with a pet is just as significant. Researchers in Japan say that dog owners get a surge of the ‘love drug,’ the bonding hormone oxytocin, when playing with their pets, which dampens stress and combats depression. Dog-walking can even lead to a relationship – I know a couple who met through walking their pets and are still together twenty years later.
Health Benefits of Having a Dog
In the UK, the charity The Dogs Trust has recently launched a Canine Charter for Human Health based on a compilation of independent academic research from around the world over the last twenty years. The Charter highlights nine areas in which owning or interacting with a dog can improve health.
- Dog owners make fewer visits to their doctors
- Owning a dog can help reduce stress and anxiety
- Owning a dog can help reduce blood pressure
- Owners who walk their dogs are healthier than non-dog owners
- Dogs can help the development of children with autism and children with learning difficulties
- Owning a dog can boost your immune system
- Dog owners are likely to recover quicker from heart attacks
- Dogs can help safeguard against depression
- Trained dogs can detect a variety of health conditions – including epileptic fits, cancerous tumors and hypoglycemia (low blood glucose)
Well-Being, Self-Esteem, Oxytocin, Anti-Depression, and Just Enjoyable Experience
The Canine Charter leverages the evidence of dogs and improved health to call on doctors to prescribe the benefits of dog-ownership to their patients. My friends’ experience echoes that of Serpell’s study (1990) quoted in the Charter, which shows that people who have newly acquired a dog experience significant improvements in psychological well-being and a notable improvement in self-esteem. In Australia three nursing homes took part in a long-term study of the impact of visiting and resident dogs on elderly people (Crowley-Robinson, Fenwick & Blackshaw, 1996). One nursing home had a dog visit each week, another had a live-in dog and the third made do with the visiting researcher. Guess which group turned out to be top dog? It was the resident dog group that showed significant decreases in depression compared to the others.
“Pet therapy” has developed as an intervention to improve patient well-being in nursing homes where you’re as likely now to receive a visit from a pooch as a priest. Though more recent research (eg. Phelps et al., 2008) questions the beneficial effect of dog visits, suggesting that it may simply be an enjoyable experience for residents, rather than impacting underlying depression levels.
However, looking around my own friends, I can see what a huge benefit dogs have made to their well-being, acting as a buffer against depression, aiding recovery from bereavement, facilitating social interaction and physical activity, being loyal companions and the conduit for positive emotions like love. So could dogs be the positive psychologists of the animal world? I vote yes. What about you?
Canine Charter for Human Health (2008). Retrieved from http://www.dogstrust.org.uk/press_office/pressreleases/2008/caninecharter.htm
Crowley-Robinson, P., Fenwick, D.C. & Blackshaw, J.K. (1996) A long-term study of elderly people in nursing homes with visiting and resident dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 47, (1-2) 137-148
Nagasawa, M. et al. (2009). “Dog’s Gaze at Its Owner Increases Owner’s Urinary Oxytocin During Social Interaction,” Hormones and Behavior (forthcoming). Retrieved from http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16412-pet-dogs-rival-humans-for-emotional-satisfaction.html
Phelps, K. A, Miltenberger, R.G, Jens, T & Wadeson, H (2008). An investigation of the effects of dog visits on depression, mood, and social interaction in elderly individuals living in a nursing home. Behavioral Interventions, 23(3), 181-200.
Serpell, J. (1990) Evidence for long term effects of pet ownership on human health In Pets, Benefits and Practice Waltham Symposium 20, April 19 1990