The Newest Innovation In Mental Health Treatment? Your Dog

Written by: Tasmai Uppin

January 22, 2015

Those of us who are dog parents and/or have the opportunity to regularly interact with these wonderful fuzzbutts already know how rewarding the human-dog relationship really is.

So, it comes as no surprise to us that science is starting to prove that dogs can be incredibly effective in therapy.

But, for the sake of curiosity and to truly understand the facts behind it, let’s dig a little deeper.

Brian Hare, co-director of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center spoke to the National Geographic in 2012, when dogs were dispatched to comfort people in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Hare said:

“Part of what makes dogs special is that they are one of the only species that does not generally exhibit xenophobia, meaning fear of strangers. We’ve done research on this, and what we’ve found is that not only are most dogs totally not xenophobic, they’re actually xenophilic-they love strangers! That’s one way in which you could say dogs are ‘better’ than people. We’re not always that welcoming.”

In another 2012 article titled, Canine Comfort: Do Dogs Know When You’re Sad? LiveScience summarized the results of a study conducted by University of London researchers led by Psychologist, Debbie Custance. The study analyzed the dogs’ capacity to demonstrate empathy.

Volunteers were asked to pretend to cry and hum weirdly. Custance found that, “nearly all of the dogs came over to nuzzle or lick the crying person, whether it was the owner or a stranger, while they paid little attention when people were merely humming.”

While it didn’t definitively prove that dogs respond with empathy, the study indicated that dogs might actually have the ability to sense distress after all. (You can read the study in its entirety here.)

Image via WTNH News 8

In general, dogs seem to produce major health benefits for humans. Other research has found that people who start caring for dogs report lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) and also tend to have lower blood pressure.

It is no surprise then that dogs would also possibly have a positive effect on mental health. And for some people (like adolescents navigating the ins and outs of high school or prison inmates facing life sentences), seeking mental health services can be difficult.

Image via The Ubyssey

In fact, at least in regards to teens, one study showed that adolescents are highly unlikely to reach out to other humans for help when they sense a mental health issue.

This is where therapy dogs can step in.

According to Mic, therapy dogs just do what regular dogs do, which is provide “unconditional emotional support and companionship.” In their article on the subject, they found in their research that dogs:

“Facilitate social interactions and help reluctant therapy patients embrace the process. In some cases, dogs act as liaisons between psychotherapists and patients, ‘co-therapists’ in a very real way.”

All these studies only strengthen the case for us crazy dog peeps. So, bring on the puppy love with a side of extra licks and cuddles, please!

Featured Image via National Geographic

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Written by: Tasmai Uppin

January 22, 2015

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