Guest Post By: Paige Johnson
Most of us are familiar with service dogs that help people with physical impairments such as blindness or paralysis. We see them assist with crossing the street, opening doors, and performing other tasks that make their owners’ lives more manageable. Now, studies show that dogs are effective at treating depression and anxiety and improving people’s overall health. If you have a mental disorder, you need to consider getting a therapy dog. We’ll show you why below.
Therapy Dogs Help People with Mental Disorders Navigate Social Situations
People who have depression and anxiety often avoid social situations because they worry about what may happen when they are around too many people or strangers. They often have negative thoughts and fears. As Pet Wellness Academy co-founder Dr. Katie Kangas explains: “Anxiety and depression involve emotional turmoil and negative internal ‘self-talk.’ These thoughts typically spiral into unrealistic negativity and this continues in a vicious cycle.”
Dogs, whether they are pets or trained therapy animals, provide comfort and companionship for people with mental disorders by providing them with a reason for leaving the house and being in social situations. For example, your dog requires exercise such as a daily walk. Having a dog by your side can help you stay calm and provide comfort because you have a friend with you in situations that make you uncomfortable.
Trained dogs also can recognize the signs of a panic attack and calm their owners when one begins. Some trained dogs nudge their owner’s hand or leg or lick them to provide a stimulus to distract or calm them. They also know how to block strangers from approaching their owners and help them remain calm when they are among too many unfamiliar people.
Therapy dogs also help people navigate social situations by providing a starting point for conversations. When you walk your dog, for example, people may ask about your dog or try to pet him, prompting you to explain that your dog is working and how he helps you navigate day-to-day life. The dog acts as an icebreaker for conversations that otherwise may be difficult or uncomfortable for a person with a mental disorder. Plus, dogs are nonjudgmental and can provide a great listening ear for you when you’re struggling with difficult situations.
Pet Therapy Improves Mental Health
People living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism, and other mental disorders benefit from pet therapy in several ways. Petting a dog relieves stress because it cues the body to release endorphins, or feel-good chemicals. Endorphins are powerful enough to positively impact people with depression and other mental disorders.
Similarly, having a dog can be a distraction from your own fears and problems. Your dog needs love and attention, so you’ll tend to focus on your animal’s needs rather than your own fears and problems. In other words, your dog can give you purpose: a reason to get out of bed every day, get dressed, feed your pet, give him water, and take him for a walk.
You’ll develop nurturing skills and a sense of empathy when you care for your dog, and you may be less likely to fall into depression.
Overall, people with mental disorders who own therapy dogs benefit in many ways:
- They decrease anxiety and depression
- Therapy dogs also increase the person’s sense of comfort and safety
- They reduce loneliness, which helps alleviate the symptoms of depression
- Younger people with therapy dogs find that they have increased self-esteem and confidence when they are with their dogs, which makes going to school and being in otherwise uncomfortable social situations more manageable
If you have a mental disorder, there are countless benefits of getting a therapy dog. You will feel more comfortable in a variety of social situations when you have a therapy dog, and your dog can calm you when you begin to feel too anxious. Simply petting the dog will calm you and help relieve depression symptoms. And, owning a therapy dog will give you a sense of purpose that will keep you going even when your depression or anxiety tries to take over your mind.
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