It’s pretty easy to wrap your mind around the idea that living with a dog can make life better. In fact, the entire premise behind emotional support animals — most of which are dogs — is that an animal can provide emotional benefits to a person who is disabled by an emotional disorder or mental health condition. People who qualify for these pets have a verifiable psychological disability that can interfere with day-to-day or major life activities, like anxiety disorders, major depressive disorder, or panic attacks. So it’s already an agreed upon belief that some level of science backs up the initial idea: that living with a dog makes life tangibly better.
There’s already a lot of research supporting this, and most recently a study published in the journal Preventing Chronic Disease revealed that children who grew up with dogs are significantly less likely to struggle with anxiety.
The researchers compared two different groups of almost 650 children — 273 who did not grow up with a dog and 370 who did. They found that 21 percent of the non-dog owning children tested positive for anxiety while only 12 percent of the dog-owning children tested positive for anxiety.
‘What we actually found was children from homes with pet dogs had lower anxiety scores than children in homes with no pet dog,’ research scientist and the study’s author, Dr. Anne Gadomski explained. ‘Interacting with a friendly dog also reduces cortisol levels, most likely through oxytocin release, which lessens physiologic responses to stress. These hormonal effects may underlie the observed emotional and behavioral benefits of animal-assisted therapy and pet dogs.’
So how exactly do pets (and dogs, specifically) help people battle through anxiety or stress?
According to Medical News Today, aside from providing a sense of calm, service dogs can potentially anticipate anxiety attacks and even fetch medication for their owner. But those are tangible tasks a service dog can provide for those with anxiety disorders. We’re all mostly interested in the emotional benefits of being surrounded by dogs, though. In 2012, a study revealed that interacting with animals can reduce depression and improve mood, it can encourage more positive interactions with other people, lower cortisol levels, the a primary hormone that regulates and triggers stress, it can lower heart rates and blood pressure in moments of stress, and lower reported fear and anxiety. When studying a group of elderly people in a care facility, they found that visitation with animals reduced loneliness, and more specifically, caring for a canary for three months led to “a reduction in depression and improvement in quality of life.” In this instance, they determined there’s a correlation beyond the simple presence of an animal that boosts moods, where taking responsibility for an animals’ health and wellbeing are key in giving a person purpose and therefore an improvement in their mental health.
In 2015, The Dodo reported that physical contact with pets is a factor in alleviating stress and anxiety. Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, emphasized that "holding and stroking a pet is calming for many people, even those without anxiety problems.”
Research is showing that this act 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.
And why dogs, by the way? What’s so special about canines and their ability to help us create feel-good hormones and ease anxiety or depression?
According to a new study from Dr. Colleen Kirk of the New York Institute of Technology, there actually is an in-depth answer behind our affection toward canines. The title of her paper, “Dogs have masters, cats have staff: Consumers' psychological ownership and their economic valuation of pets,” pretty much gives us the answer as determined by Kirk. While we truly want to see our dogs as a part of our family, Kirk’s report points out that the psychology of our affection is driven by perceived ownership of that dog. It’s actually more revealing of us than it is of anything admirable about dogs themselves because Kirk points out that this feeling of ownership has less to do with an actual measure of self-investment than it does a desire for control. If it says anything about these pets at all, it’s that we instinctively know or at least believe that dogs are more apt to be controlled than cats, for example. Or as author Mary Bly put it, "Dogs come when they're called; cats take a message and get back to you."
So there are both physiological changes and mental and emotional changes in the presence of canines that can help people struggling with anxiety. And the research to support it all never seems to stop, giving us a well-rounded perspective on how and why these animals are so helpful. For example, the Human Animal Bond Research Institute reports they’ve funded over $2 million in research projects on the subject, from the effects of dogs on children with life-threatening conditions and their parents to their impacts on the social wellbeing of adolescents, and even exploring how pets at home can prevent suicide.