If you struggle with any mental health illnesses, emotional support animals can often be great ways to improve your mental well being. Dogs especially have been proven to have a variety of positive health benefits for people, making them great companions for people in need of well, a companion.
“Many scientific studies show that bringing a dog into your house can reduce depression, anxiety, and stress,” says Lauren McDevitt, co-founder of Good Dog, which is a platform that helps prospective dog owners find the best match as their new four-legged best friend. “Dogs provide companionship without judgment, offering unconditional love and acceptance that many people struggle to find in human connections. They bring true friendship to the table, along with a sense of security and, at times, a great deal of stress relief. Additionally, dogs can help their owners stay active and outdoors.”
Research is showing that even just the act of petting an animal has a recognizable effect on our brain chemistry and adds to the list of reasons canines make our lives better overall. Thanks to our anterior cingulate cortex, our brain is able to process sensations of touch and different textures as “pleasant,” “neutral,” and “unpleasant” experiences for us. The act of petting a dog actually releases serotonin and dopamine, the most recognizable “feel good” hormones or chemicals we can create naturally. People who are experiencing depression or even something like separation anxiety are often physically low on serotonin and dopamine levels, creating a very logical and obvious explanation for how having dogs around makes us feel better. That isn’t all though, as even just staring into a dog’s eyes has been found to release oxytocin, a hormone that helps bond a mother and a child to one another.
In 2015, one study observed how all this can be influenced by simply looking at one another in human/dog relationships. The dog and human pairs were observed while interacting during a 30-minute timeframe, and the simple discovery was that dogs who stared at their human owners longer were found to have higher oxytocin levels than dogs whose gaze or attention wasn’t held for very long at all.
But are some dogs better suited for this role than others?
Of course, the answer to that question depends on a number of factors that can vary from dog to dog and owner to owner. In fact, you don’t even need a dog as your emotional support animal.
“Although emotional support animals typically tend to be dogs, they can also be other types of common domestic animals such as cats, mice, rabbits, birds, mini pigs, and hedgehogs,” McDevitt said. “The type of animal will depend on your personal needs and whether the specific animal can give you the benefits that you seek.” An emotional support animal helps our mental well being by offering us companionship, affection, and even structure, which are all influences that can help us climb out of depression or steer clear of anxiety. According to McDevitt, however, there are three specific dog breeds that are consistently and specifically the most beneficial to their owners in promoting mental health: Golden Retrievers, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, and Bernese Mountain Dogs. While technically any dog can be classified as an emotional support animal, these three, in particular, stand out to her as having an exceptionally loving and gentle demeanor that’s suited best for the role.
Goldens may be the most affectionate breed imaginable, which plays a great role in them being such popular family dogs and making them so great with kids. They are also excellent all around partners in large part to their loyalty and desire to bond with and please their person, meaning they’re great exercise partners, they make excellent and obedient service dogs for special needs owners, and even great hunting dogs.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels
Cavaliers are another affectionate breed with a friendly demeanor as well. They often seek physical contact and affection, aka snuggling, which can influence our own hormonal levels in a positive way. Coupled with the fact that they’re a smaller breed makes them a near perfect lap dog. And since they’re significantly smaller than Golden retrievers, for example, they’re going to be a better fit for the less active dog owner or somebody living in an environment that wouldn’t allow for running around and exercising constantly.
Bernese Mountain Dog
Again, we have another affectionate and loving animal, just as McDevitt suggested. Most Bernese Mountain Dogs will not only always be happy to see their owner, but they’re also pretty much always happy to see anybody. They’re incredibly attentive and are very rarely aggressive animals.
If you’re still not sold on the idea of or necessity for emotional support dogs, consider that there’s even recent research calling for local governments to increase human interaction with pets in the name of mental health. Research presented at the first Summit on Social Isolation and Companion Animals by Mars Petcare and the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute revealed loneliness is as dangerous to physical health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. The same research equates those consequences to a health epidemic parallel to obesity.
"When we think about loneliness, we need attachment figures and pets meet that need," says Nancy Gee, human-animal interaction research manager at Mars' Waltham Centre for Pet Nutrition. ”You don’t have to worry about confidentiality or judgment. It just is what it is.”
Of course, loneliness isn’t the only mental health threat that can necessitate the companionship of an emotional support dog. According to the United States Dog Registry, they can assist with conditions such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder/mood disorder, panic attacks, fear/phobias, and other psychological and emotional conditions. According to ESA Doctors, that qualifies more than 25 percent of the American population who could benefit from having one of these dogs by their side. There’s an explicit difference between these animals and service animals, however, in that emotional support dogs are only meant to offer emotional stability and love for their owner, while service dogs are trained specifically to perform and assist in tasks for people with disabilities.