Dogs perform many different services for people, including helping us when we’re down. It isn’t uncommon to see a therapy dog wandering down the halls of a nursing home, cheering up the patients inside.
New research has shown that dogs can help alleviate everything from depression to anxiety to aggression and other mental health problems. But how exactly does this work? And do all dogs relieve depression or is it the gift of a select few?
Will My Dog Know I’m Sad?
Dogs can sniff out cancer and even detect blood sugar levels, but do they recognize our emotions?
Many studies have found that dogs are susceptible to our emotions. For example, one study found that dogs are sensitive to changes in facial expression. While this study only used angry faces and happy faces, scientists assume that dogs will be able to recognize all if not most changes in the facial expressions of their owners. In other words, they can look at our faces and tell whether we’re happy or sad – at least most of the time.
Another study looked specifically at whether or not dogs can recognize emotions based on vocal tones. This study used a phenomenon called head-orienting to tell which side of a dog’s brain the stimuli were activating. To put things simply, dogs naturally tilt their head when processing audio stimuli based on the part of their brain they’re using to interpret the audio.
The researchers were able to tell what sort of emotion dogs were interpreting each vocalization as using this method. They found that dogs were very good at understanding human voices, even when faces or other cues weren’t visible.
There are many other studies that have looked at whether or not dogs can interpret emotions. However, they all come to the same conclusion – dogs are extremely good at reading a human’s mental state based on things like facial expression, body language, and tone of voice.
The Science Behind How Dogs Can Help Depression
Now that we know dogs can recognize our emotions and do often respond to us appropriately, in which ways is this good for treating depression?
Higher Oxytocin Production
One breakthrough study found that most if not all pet owners experienced increased oxytocin levels in their brains. This biochemical is also known as the “love” chemical, and I think anyone with a dog can recognize the unconditional love they often provide. (Unconditional oxytocin, anyone?)
They found that those with pets had less self-reported cases of anxiety and had lower stress-related markers like epinephrine and blood pressure.
Pet owners also had plenty of other benefits in the study, not all of which are directly related to mood. Dog owners had improved pain-management and less sickness, increased trust and higher relationship ratings with other family members in their life, reduced aggression behaviors, and even enhanced learning abilities.
Scientists theorize that higher oxytocin levels are the reason for many of these benefits.
As you might know, raising oxytocin levels is very beneficial for those with depression. Oxytocin plays a crucial role in regulating anxiety and stress. When it is low, these emotions can run rampant.
The simple presence of a dog can help fight depression simply because of the increased levels of oxytocin pet owners often experience.
Similarly, dog owners have lower stress markers than those who don’t own dogs. A stress marker is a biological function that kicks in when we feel stressed, like our blood pressure or levels of certain hormones. Measuring these levels is an excellent way to get an objective idea of someone’s stress levels.
Many studies have shown that pet owners often have lower stress markers across the board, which means they are likely less stressed. For example, one study showed that owning a dog lowered blood pressure levels.
Depression often feels lonely. It makes its victims withdrawal from the world, though face-to-face contact often relieves many symptoms of depression.
Dogs offer unconditional companionship to their owners and help remind them that they aren’t alone. Dogs don’t require the depressed person to leave the house or pick up the phone, which many depressed people cannot do on their worst days.
Furthermore, because dogs can recognize when their owners are depressed, many will automatically provide comfort in a time of need.
How Dogs Help with Anxiety
Dogs help with anxiety and other mental illness, similarly to how they help with depression.
They increase oxytocin production, which decreases stress and fear, and provides unconditional companionship to their owners. These things help with mental illnesses of all kinds, including anxiety and depression.
In our modern world, children might be particularly vulnerable to anxiety, even in the elementary school years. Luckily, these benefits are apparent across all ages, including children. One study did find that children who owned dogs were less likely to have anxiety or a similar disorder than those without dogs.
Dogs might be particularly useful at treating anxiety in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
Dogs Contribute to a Healthy Lifestyle
Having a dog also requires you to partake in activities that contribute to a healthy lifestyle and help diminish the effects of depression.
For example, every dog is going to need exercise. Even if you have a breed that doesn’t require long walks, they are going to need to be taken outside multiple times a day to use the potty.
Simply getting outside and walking around in a green area has been shown to improve physical and mental health outcomes. Going out can also increase vitamin D intake, which can also improve mental health. Vitamin D deficiency can mirror depression in many ways and mental health professions think it plays a critical role in many depression symptoms.
There is also some degree of responsibility that comes with owning a dog. You have to get up to feed them, take them outside, and get them some exercise. Even if you did the bare minimum on any given day and only took care of your dog, you would get more done that if you owned no pets. Exercise and dogs are often correlated with being more productive for these reasons.
Plus, responsibility and productivity are linked with higher self-esteem. Those who get stuff done tend to think higher of themselves. This can help undercut many of the negative thoughts that are common with depression and other mental health problems.
What is the Best Dog for Depression?
There have been very few studies on which types of dogs are best for depression. Overall, there seems to be very little difference between highly trained service dogs and your average companion dog when it comes to treating depression symptoms. This is likely because there are very few specific actions a dog can perform to help with depression. It is mostly their presence and day-to-day maintenance that is crucial for treating depression symptoms.
However, trained service dogs can be helpful to those with PTSD, anxiety, and other mental illnesses. In these cases, dogs can perform specific commands that can help substantially. Service dogs for anxiety can often detect anxiety attacks before they start and prompt their owners to get to a safe place.
In terms of breed, no one dog breed is better for depression than others. In general, it is better to pick low-maintenance dogs, as someone with depression might not have the energy to care for an energetic Jack Russel or the highly-intelligent border collie.
As usual, you should take into account your living situation and lifestyle when choosing a dog as well. A giant dog might not be suitable if you live in a smaller home. Some people might find it very calming to brush a dog daily, but you might not.
Labrador Retrievers are a standard go-to for all service dogs and emotional support dogs. These canines are reliable and dependable without requiring vast amounts of maintenance. They do require quite a bit of exercise each day, but not as much as most big dogs.
Other dog breeds that are good for those with depression include Greyhounds, Havanese, Whippets, and Spaniels.
Dogs can help with depression through a variety of health benefits. Their closeness increases oxytocin production and levels of serotonin, which in turn decreases levels of stress and lower blood pressure. It also increases positive emotions and can make us more trusting of others around us. Our furry best friends can also provide the emotional support we need. Just being around a dog can even lower our heart rate.
Dogs also force us to perform actions like going outside and exercise, which can help improve depression symptoms. The simple fact that you’re owning and caring for a dog can improve your self-esteem and well-being.
There isn’t much of a difference between particular dog breeds when it comes to their health benefits. In general, you should select a dog to help with your depression that same way you would choose any dog.