Dogs and your mental health
During a local lockdown, it may have been difficult for a lot of people to manage the stress and anxiety which can occasionally come with work, family life and general responsibilities. These pressures may leave many feeling the strain of day-to-day life and suffering from anxiety and stress. However, research has shown owning a pet could have a positive impact on the mental health of owners during these challenging times and beyond.
A brief history of dogs and humansDogs and humans have always had a close connection, mainly because they have evolved alongside each other over time. Back when humans were still hunter-gatherers, it is likely some wolves left their packs for humans, due to their regular supply of leftover food.
Animals have been a central feature of human life for many thousands of years. We know that from the earliest human times, wild animals and, later, agricultural animals have been important for the provision of food and other materials, transportation, and as part of cultural and religious practices.
The relationship between dogs and humans has since evolved, with the domesticated dog becoming a common occurrence in many countries.
Why are dogs ideal companions for humans?These days, puppies are close to humans as soon as they are born, meaning more often than not, they are already familiar and comfortable around us. Dogs and their owners will also form a close bond and connection simply because they share a lot of time in each others company.
Looking after a living being with specific needs can help bring purpose to daily life, especially for pet owners living alone during the coronavirus pandemic. Dogs are also able to interpret communicative signals from their owners and can tell when something is wrong, often adapting their behaviour to fit in with their owner, which in some instances can mean dogs help reduce stress.
Dogs can often understand our intentions, attitudes, gestures, looks and probably our emotions due to their long history of living in close proximity with humans.
Are dogs good for anxiety?Given the current pandemic, with local lockdowns enforced in some areas, the social benefits of owning a dog can have a positive impact within a family. For those who live alone, companionship dogs are especially important, as they can provide a source of company and help ease feelings of loneliness.
Close physical contact with a pet can provide some emotional relief for many owners. Feeling the temperature of a dog, stroking their fur and having them come to you for attention, can all provide some emotional relief and stimuli, particularly in these challenging times. It can also be reassuring to know that a dog will always be there for you, no matter what time of the day or night it is.
How else do dogs benefit your mental health?During the domestication process, individuals with paedomorphic attributes were selected preferentially as their physical features trigger specific attachment signals in humans. They tend to have a bigger head and eyes compared to their body size, as well as the ability to look humans in the eyes. Studies have shown this ability to share a gaze can provide an oxytocin boost for both the human and pet. Oxytocin provokes physiological effects on the body, including lowering heart rates, which can result in positive emotion.
In 1980, a groundbreaking study showed that there was a significant positive association between having pets and one-year survival after hospitalisation for certain kinds of heart disease.
Regular walks with your dogDaily walks with your dog, provided this doesn't go against local restrictions, can provide the opportunity for fresh air, exercise and socially distanced chats with a fellow dog walker. This can help ease the stress and anxiety which may arise as a result of a local lockdown, and it will allow your dog to burn off any excess energy.
All dogs require physical activity and opportunities throughout the day to explore. Whilst it's recommended that dogs are taken for a walk at least two times a day, this might not always be possible depending on local restrictions.
Regular walks will also offer an escape from the house, which is where the majority of people will likely be spending more time than usual, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Responsibility of owning a dogOwning a dog is a big responsibility and a large financial commitment for many people. The regular care and attention needed to look after a dog on a day-to-day basis can also consume many hours. However, this responsibility can result in benefits for your mental health, due to the need to interact with other people, such as the groomer, vets, and other dog walkers, which can help combat loneliness.
The responsibilities of owning a pet can help provide structure and order to the day. During these challenging times, ordinary routines like going to work and socialising have changed, and in some instances been removed altogether. Therefore, looking after a dog can add order and purpose to a day which will be reassuring to many people.
Whilst there is no quick fix for our mental health, when we ask ourselves the question, "can dogs help with anxiety", it seems our canine friends can play a significant role and help ease such issues, especially during challenging and difficult times.
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