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I will be the first to admit that I am not a pet person and one of my biggest pet peeves is a dog doing its business on my lawn. But I have also dedicated a huge portion of my career to educating others about the mental health benefits of nature, including pet ownership. Although I personally don’t tap into this aspect of nature, I recognize how so many people (including most of my neighbors) feel happier and calmer by welcoming a furry friend into their home.
Dogs, in particular, have gotten a great deal of attention lately for being a soothing friend to their human owners. A recent study by Preventing Chronic Disease revealed that having a dog as a child makes an individual less likely to suffer from anxiety later in life. Scientists compared two study groups of young children: 370 who were living with a dog and 273 who were not. They discovered that 12 percent of those who grew up with a pet dog suffered from anxiety compared to 21 percent who didn’t have a dog.
Here are a few of the emotional benefits of having dogs for kids:
Offers Comfort and Companionship
The companionship of a pet offers coping skills for kids by alleviating loneliness and isolation, which can be part of anxiety and depression. Kids find support and security in having a pet companion to always be there for them and provide them with the feeling of unconditional love. A study published in the The Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health concluded, “There is growing evidence that children turn to their pets for comfort, reassurance, and emotional support when feeling anger, sadness, or happiness. Thus, it is plausible that companion animals may have the potential to encourage better emotional health and reduce anxiety and depression.” Learn how your child can find emotional support from a comfort animal.
Provides a Healthy Distraction
Pets give children something to focus on that is positive versus the sometime negative thoughts swirling through their head. The magic of focused attention is that we can use it to help get over negative emotions like fear. We can redirect our attention towards something that relaxes us. Just petting or playing with a dog can give a child that healthy distraction they need to feel better.
Boosts Positive Hormones
The simple act of petting a dog has been shown to release endorphins into our brain, which are powerful pain relievers and mood boosters. These are the same hormones that give us pleasure and that feeling of a natural “high.” Petting a dog also reduces cortisol, the hormone that is released in response to stressful situations. Dog owners are also less likely to be depressed, and in fact, have higher levels of serotonin and dopamine than non-dog owners.
Increases Social Interaction
Being social boosts happiness at all ages. Having a dog provides new ways to interact with more neighbors and friends. For example, when you go for a walk with your dog around the neighborhood, you will probably run into people to chat with. You can venture out with your kids to the park and see friends or make new ones. Dogs tend to also be a hot topic, so having a dog helps to initiate conversations with both those you know and those you want to know better.
Encourages More Exercise
We know how important exercise is for our physical and mental health. Having a dog to walk helps us get more exercise, which ultimately reduces stress. A study out of the University of Missouri showed that the best companion for a walk is your dog. The study showed that individuals who walked alone with a dog averaged 300 minutes a week of walking versus 168 minutes a week if they walked with family or friends. The study also found that those who walked a dog reached the recommended level of physical activity for their age group 50 percent more often when compared to those walking without a dog.
But what if you can’t or aren’t interested in owning your own dog? There are so many reasons why having a dog just isn’t possible: allergies, your partner or child doesn’t want one, your apartment or neighborhood doesn’t allow it, you travel too much, illness, financial constraints, etc. There are ways that you and/or your children can still enjoy time with dogs to feel happier and calmer. Here are some ideas:
- Volunteer to walk dogs at an animal shelter.
- Offer to walk the dog of an ill or elderly friend or neighbor.
- Participate in a therapy dog reading program at your local library.
- Partner up with a friend or relative who owns a dog to volunteer with the animal to do community service like therapy visits or participating in a dog-friendly charity walk, run, or other event.
- Offer to watch after a friend’s dog while they are out of town.
- Foster a rescued dog temporarily or volunteer with the rescue organization.
- See if your school will start an adopt-a-dog program or at least bring in a dog occasionally. Research shows that classroom pets provide significant benefits for children’s social, behavioral, and academic development.
How have dogs brightened up your family’s life?