Most people would agree that seeing and petting a dog out on a walk is a guaranteed way to put a smile on your face, and some may even say it has a “healing” effect on you. Pet owners are likely to concur that their animals provide them with a lot of happiness, as well as a sense of purpose in caring for them. Having a relationship with a pet can be a restorative experience, and enrich and enhance your entire life. Cuddling with a cat or dog is, put simply, an enjoyable activity, and promises to put you in a better mood. Having a responsibility to exercise a pet provides a sense of purpose and gives you a reason to get out and move around. But beyond exercise, which in itself is a mental-health booster, a pet is a companion, and the simple exposure to animals can act as a mood-booster, and even play an important role in our mental wellbeing.
It’s not hard to argue that animals, and especially dogs, simply seem to have some special quality that makes you feel happier, and we know now that this quality is actually rooted in science.
Exposing yourself to ‘dog therapy,’ or simply cuddling or playing with a dog, also has a scientific basis; it raises the levels of both serotonin and dopamine in the system, chemicals which boost pleasure and alleviate feelings of stress, also lowering cortisol in the body, a hormone which can induce feelings of stress.
Pets are natural stress and loneliness relievers, and they love their humans unconditionally. Beyond this, animals, and particularly dogs, are capable of ‘reading’ humans – which is why it may seem that they are responsive towards sad or anxious emotions. Dogs are capable of recognizing and identifying specific people as important, as well as their differing emotions, both positive and negative, thereby establishing a special bond between dog and human, or pet and owner. Social bonding also occupies an important part of our mental wellbeing. Humans without the presence of positive social bonding in their life will eventually feel the effects of loneliness and depression. While researchers are not yet certain about how the establishment of social recognition, or bonding, occurs between humans and pets, it is possible the answer relates to oxytocin, a hormone which, like serotonin and dopamine, corresponds with feelings of happiness. Animal exposure can raise levels of oxytocin, which is also sometimes referred to as a “love hormone,” since oxytocin levels are known to rise during social contact and establish feelings of empathy and social trust.
Acadia University recently offered a therapy dog session at the Vaughan Memorial Library during the first week of November. ‘Dog therapy’ is an increasingly popular high school and university offered program for students to de-stress, particularly during exam season or when workloads are increased. It’s not just the sight of a particularly cute canine which raises happiness and decreases stress in students either; dog therapy works because dogs have the ability to sense human emotions, a phenomenon known as ‘social contagion.’ This is where dogs are able to perceive different emotions in humans, including the presence of stress, and adapt their behaviour effectively. A student who feels stressed, therefore, can benefit from a visit with a dog, which can lower cortisol and stress levels and increase feelings of happiness.
Since 2012, the University of British Columbia, Okanagan campus, has offered a program known as B.A.R.K, or Building Academic Retention Through K-9s, which gives students the chance to visit with therapy dogs on campus with the intention of decreasing stress and establishing positive social interaction between dogs and humans. The most extensive research program being conducted at any Canadian university with 45 dogs, the B.A.R.K. program also regularly conducts studies on the power of dog therapy for students and their mental wellbeing. A study in March 2018 was run by the psychology department at the University of British Columbia which studied the effects of therapy dogs on students and their mental health during midterm season. Several hundred students participated in the study, and were asked to answer a series of questions regarding their feelings of stress and mental state before and after exposure to therapy dogs. They were then asked the same questions ten hours after their visit with a therapy dog. Researchers conducting the study were surprised at the outcome; although they had assumed that it would be pleasurable and entertaining for students to be able to visit with the dogs, they had not expected a unanimous indication that dog therapy may lead to decreased stress and improved mental wellbeing. The results of the study were clear however; students who participated in the study reported feeling happier and less stressed after their time with a therapy dog, and even ten hours after having completed the study the effects were still somewhat present.
If there is anything to take away from what we know about animals and mental health, it is that next time you feel stressed or lonely, remember that exposure to a pet is guaranteed (scientifically) to brighten your day, reduce stress, and put a smile on your face.
Coren, Stanley. “Petting Away Pre-Exam Stress: Therapy Dogs on Campus.” Psychology Today, 20th March 2018, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/canine-corner/201803/petting-away-pre-exam-stress-therapy-dogs-campus
Hilderman, Kristen. “Therapy Dogs Help Students Combat Stress: Using Canine Bonding To Improve Well-Being.” The University of British Columbia, https://you.ubc.ca/ubc_stories/bark-therapy-dogs/
Robinson, Ann. “Dogs have a magic effect: how pets can improve our mental health.” The Guardian, 17th March 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/mar/17/dogs-have-a-magic-effect-the-power-of-pets-on-our-mental-health