Each of us has a different vision of what will bring happiness and contentment. Many have imagined being greeted by a dog’s wagging tail as the answer to hard times and loneliness.
Dogs as Shrinks
Any dog owner will tell you that their pet offers unconditional love and emotional support. A dog’s presence is comforting and often, the source of smiles and, somedays, even laughter. That might mean chasing a ball, curling up at your feet, or playing tug of war with you.
a) Reducing Negative Emotions.
Considering dog ownership objectively, multiple studies have shown that dogs help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. That’s why therapy dogs are in such demand in hospitals and nursing homes. Colleges and universities have also started to use therapy dogs to help reduce students’ anxiety. Scientists have found that spending 10 minutes petting a dog can result in a significant decrease in cortisol, a major stress hormone. Just petting a familiar dog lowers blood pressure and heart rate in addition to slowing breathing and reducing muscle tension.
b) Increase Positive Emotions.
Interactions with dogs promote the release of several hormones that simply make us feel happier. A significant contributor to happiness is oxytocin, the “love” hormone or “bonding” hormone. This hormone provides a neurochemical prompt for the sense of peace, well-being, and tolerance. Most of us associate it with a mother’s relationship with her infant, but it can be triggered in other situations like positive interactions between a dog and its owner.
In addition to oxytocin, interactions with dogs increase other beneficial hormones. One is serotonin, sometimes called the “happiness” hormone. Endorphins, chemicals that improve our sense of well-being, can come into play, too. Brain studies show that tactile contact with animals may also cause the owner to release endorphins.
Looking at human-dog interactions both as a way to increase beneficial hormones and to reduce detrimental hormones, it’s easy to understand why experts have come to see these interactions as powerful tools in managing PTSD in veterans. Some neuroscientists take a more lofty approach and assert that the benefits of human-animal interactions arise from temporarily shutting down our brains’ sometimes turbulent cognitive functions.
c) Dogs are the best Fitness Trainers.
Dogs’ daily walks are an inevitable source of increased steps for their owners. Dog ownership has been shown to be a significant factor in the health of older adults. These walks also give owners a routine that can help decrease stress and avoid depression.
If the walk takes the dogs and owners into nature, all the better. Sensations like the smell of freshly cut grass, a bird’s song, or the sight of a butterfly can add happiness to the day. Moreover, exposure to sunlight increases the production of endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones you may associate with a good workout in the gym.
d) Dogs as Ambassadors.
Dogs can also be our ambassadors and help us make new connections. If you’re shy or an introvert, walking your dog can serve as a way to meet new people or to know your neighbors better. As your dog greets another dog with a cautious sniff, it’s natural to exchange a few words with the other dog’s owner. Other dog owners and passersby may offer a comment on your dog’s appearance, which can serve as a conversation starter. Voila! Dog companionship can be a pathway to human companionship.
Human to human connections is an important source of happiness and confidence. Dogs can help us create more of them and reduce loneliness. That’s all good, but in truth, a dog’s companionship itself can reduce loneliness even without the involvement of others.
e) Dogs as Mirrors.
Let your animal friend reflect back to you your own true self. Consider Anaturalist Gretel Ehrlich’s observation:
Animals hold us to what is present: to who we are at the time, not who we’ve been or how our bank accounts describe us . . . . Because they have the ability to read our involuntary tics and scents, we’re transparent to them and thus exposed—we’re finally ourselves.
Recent demand for dogs has reduced the population in shelters. Some prospective dog owners arrange their transportation from shelters in other states and even in other countries.
By adopting a shelter animal, you’re improving the life of a creature who will give so much back. That knowledge is sure to add to the positive feelings resulting from pet ownership. In that way, dogs can mirror our own goodness.
No matter how a dog comes into your life, it’s sure to bring happiness along.