The dog, or Canis Lupus Familiaris as is its scientific name, is one of the many creatures that humans have tamed to keep as their trusted companions and friends and that are proving to have positive psychological effects on them. A dog’s loyalty is a given, but how useful is it in depression therapy?
The psychological and physiological mutual benefits of having dogs are subtle and often taken for granted because we’ve had these pets since time immemorial and we think of dogs as natural companions throughout life. There are scientists who believe that there is evidence of humans having tamed dogs nearly 36,000 years ago, according to Livescience.com. Service dogs, guide dogs or assistance dogs, whichever label you prefer, have been used since 1934 to help people with various conditions. Nowadays, ‘therapy dogs’ are used to alleviate the symptoms of patients of all ages worldwide, with a wide array of organisations operations globally. In the UK, organizations such as Pets As Therapy (PAT), Dogs for Depression and the Society for Companion Animal Studies (SCAS) work to promote the benefits of using dogs in therapy, although the UK has yet to focus on how these dogs could be used specifically for psychological therapy. To that end, PADsUK, or Psychological Assistance Dogs UK, and Veterans with Dogs PALS project hope to be able to lead the way for PSDs or psychiatric service dogs in 2014.
Several studies have shown that dogs are effective companions in depression and anxiety, and doctors Maerieanna Le Roux and Rene Kemp in particular believe that PSD dog ‘visits can make a difference in the depression levels of residents in long-term care’, as stated in their 2009article published in the Psychogeriatrics journal.
Moreover, pets in general are believed to help prevent depression, according to Helpguide.org who states that pet owners are less likely to suffer from depression. Additionally, as making healthier lifestyles choices eases symptoms of depression, bipolar disorder, stress and anxiety, Help Guide state that owning pets inadvertently leads owners to adopt these choices due to the level of care, structure, routine and exercise that a pet requires.
Aside from providing infinite distractions from melancholic thoughts and worries, dogs promote well-being simply by allowing you to pat them. According to an article on Phychcentral, stroking a dog produces oxytocin, which may lower blood pressure and heart rate and could boost serotonin and dopamine levels produced in the brain, while a long massage could decrease the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol and promotes white blood cell production, strengthening the immune system. It’s no wonder then that dogs are used in hospitals to help children who have to face the traumatising experience of undergoing surgery, or to assist elderly patients in recovering in post-operative units, especially as there is a risk of developing post surgery depression.
The underlying reason for dogs’ effectiveness in depression therapy seems to be their innate instincts. Dogs are pack animals and will instinctively bond with other family members, so by their very nature provide emotional support and help with the symptoms of depression. Therefore, even if they may be unable to eradicate the cause of the depression, they are more than able to distract attention from it, to provide constant entertainment and to sooth and offer affection to their owners.