May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and it’s the perfect time to recognize the vital role therapy dogs play in supporting mental health and well-being. These incredible animals provide comfort, companionship, and emotional support to people who need it the most. In this blog post, we’ll explore the positive impact therapy dogs have on mental health, supported by research findings and insights from experts in the field.
Destigmatizing Mental Health: The Facts
Mental Health Awareness Month aims to raise awareness, reduce stigma, and support individuals facing mental health challenges. Here are a few key statistics that are helpful in understanding and destigmatizing mental health issues:
- 20% of adults in the US have a mental illness, meaning it’s more common than people think.
- 1 in 6 children face mental health issues, stressing the importance of early intervention.
- With treatment, 70-90% of people see a significant improvement in their mental health.
- Around the world, 1 in 4 people will have a mental or neurological issue at some point in their lives.
- Mental health problems are a top reason for disability worldwide, underscoring the need for better access to care.
The Impact of Pets on Mental Health
Pets, not just therapy dogs, can have a significant impact on our mental health. A study by McConnell et al. (2011) found that pet owners:
- Were 36% less likely to report feeling lonely.
- Experienced a 22% smaller increase in negative feelings during stress when their pets were present.
- Had a 10% increase in self-esteem compared to non-pet owners.
Therapy Dogs and Mental Health: The Benefits
As Dr. Aubrey Fine, a licensed psychologist and expert in animal-assisted therapy, said, “When you’re with a dog, there’s no judgment. The dog isn’t going to laugh at you or tell you to stop. That’s the beauty of working with animals. They give you a sense of safety and trust that is so hard to find in humans.”
Therapy dogs provide numerous benefits to those they serve, including:
- Providing comfort and support.
- Reducing stress and anxiety.
- Encouraging social interaction.
- Improving mood.
- Promoting physical activity.
- Providing a non-judgmental presence.
- Distracting from negative thoughts.
The Science Behind Therapy Dogs and Mental Health
Research has shown that interacting with therapy dogs can have a positive impact on mental health.
Megan Mueller, Ph.D., a researcher at the Tufts Institute for Human-Animal Interaction, explained, “Research has shown that when people pet an animal, their oxytocin levels go up, which makes them feel more connected and happy. This is one of the many ways that therapy dogs can improve people’s mental health.”
Notable Studies Supporting Therapy Dogs’ Impact on Mental Health
Several studies have been conducted to evaluate the effectiveness of therapy dogs in supporting mental health. Here are a few examples:
- Beetz et al. (2012) found that children who spent time with a therapy dog before a stressful task had cortisol levels 20% lower than those who received social support from an adult or no support at all.
- Barker et al. (2003) showed that participants who spent time with a therapy dog experienced a 24% decrease in anxiety levels compared to those who did not interact with a dog.
- Kamioka et al. (2014) conducted a systematic review of 11 studies on animal-assisted therapy and found a moderate effect on reducing depression and anxiety symptoms.
Dr. Sandra Barker, Director of the Center for Human-Animal Interaction at Virginia Commonwealth University, said, “The presence of a therapy dog can help create a therapeutic environment that fosters healing, growth, and well-being. Our research has shown that therapy dogs can lower stress hormones, decrease heart rate and blood pressure, and improve overall mood.”
Caring for Our Therapy Dogs
It’s important to remember that therapy dogs need support for their mental health as well. Handlers should prioritize their dogs’ well-being by:
- Ensuring proper training and socialization.
- Monitoring stress signals and providing appropriate breaks.
- Regular veterinary check-ups.
- Building a strong bond with handlers.
- Balancing work and play.
Therapy dogs play a crucial role in supporting mental health and well-being for people of all ages. By understanding the science behind their positive impact and celebrating their contributions, we can continue to create a more compassionate and inclusive world.
- Barker, S. (2018, July 19). Therapy dogs significantly reduce symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD. Virginia Commonwealth University News. Retrieved from https://news.vcu.edu/article/Therapy_dogs_significantly_reduce_symptoms_of_anxiety_depression
- Barker, S. B., Knisely, J. S., McCain, N. L., & Best, A. M. (2005). Measuring stress and immune response in healthcare professionals following interaction with a therapy dog: A pilot study. Psychological Reports, 96(3), 713-729. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.96.3.713-729
- Beetz, A., Uvnäs-Moberg, K., Julius, H., & Kotrschal, K. (2012). Psychosocial and psychophysiological effects of human-animal interactions: The possible role of oxytocin. Frontiers in Psychology, 3, 234. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00234
- Fine, A. (n.d.). The Science of the Human-Animal Bond: A Conversation with Dr. Aubrey Fine. Pet Partners. Retrieved from https://petpartners.org/blog/the-science-of-the-human-animal-bond-a-conversation-with-dr-aubrey-fine/
- Kamioka, H., Okada, S., Tsutani, K., Park, H., Okuizumi, H., Handa, S., Oshio, T., Park, S. J., Kitayuguchi, J., Abe, T., Honda, T., & Mutoh, Y. (2014). Effectiveness of animal-assisted therapy: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 22(2), 371-390. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2013.12.012
- McConnell, A. R., Brown, C. M., Shoda, T. M., Stayton, L. E., & Martin, C. E. (2011). Friends with benefits: On the positive consequences of pet ownership. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101(6), 1239-1252. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0024506
- Mueller, M. (2019, January 17). The Power of Pets. Tufts Now. Retrieved from https://now.tufts.edu/articles/power-pets