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Written on 28th January 2021 by Ruth Meyer

My search

In July 2019 my collie cross Murphy sadly passed away aged seventeen. It wasn’t until a year later that I felt that I was able to consider another dog and by then we were in the midst of lockdown.

I have always had rescue dogs so started my search not realising how difficult this was going to be! By then dogs from pedigrees to mutts were in short supply as Britain hunkered down with their hounds. 

Finding Bo

After a considerable search and lots of lengthy applications, I was able to secure Bo, a seven year old cross-breed Labrador. We picked her up from the rescue centre towards the end of 2020 and she has been an absolute joy for the last two months. I didn’t realise how I needed a dog and probably how much she needed me. Bo is still settling in, quite anxious if left alone and in the evening looks like she will fall asleep standing up!

Health benefits of a dog

So what are the health benefits?

  • They can reduce stress. We definitely need this one! Studies have shown that interaction with dogs causes the human brain to produce oxytocin. This is also known as the “cuddle chemical” or “happy hormone” which can increase feelings of relaxation and reduce stress.
  • They can decrease feelings of loneliness. This is hugely beneficial for anyone living on their own, especially during lockdown. In my area all dog owners will smile and say hello to each other and sometimes stop for a chat. It gives people a reason to talk.
  • It increases opportunities to exercise. Exercise can boost mood and ease depression. We are now only allowed to exercise outdoors and what better way to do this than with a dog. I take Bo out for an hour every morning before I start work. It forces me into the fresh air knowing that this is the biggest treat of the day for her and she relies on me for that. It puts structure in my day. If you are feeling fit and keen then you could try Canicross sport whereby you run with your dog tied to the front of you. I did try this but unfortunately she wasn’t tied!
  • They add a feeling of wellbeing. Anything that encourages you to get outside will help improve your mental health and also strengthen the relationship you have with your dog. However, even inside your pet will help you focus and lift your mood and this in turn can help reduce blood pressure. Pets make us laugh and cheer us up. They can also do naughty things but you can’t help feeling mad with them for too long.
  • Dogs help us learn. Many of my clients are children and studies have shown that owning a pet in childhood helps build confidence and improves levels of empathy. Owning a pet teaches responsibility and above all kindness. In addition playing with a pet can elevate levels of serotonin and dopamine which calm and relax as well as stimulate the brain and body. Many of my clients own dogs and I do love it when they send me pictures! You can see straightway how proud they are of their pet and how very much the dog is part of the family.
  • In fact it has been found that for some children with autism or other learning difficulties they are better able to interact with pets rather than people. Such children often communicate non-verbally just as pets do. Learning to connect with a pet may help children interact with other people.
  • A dog can assist with therapy. I have clients who have dog therapy and studies have shown that stroking a pet can rapidly calm a person if they feel stressed or anxious. Daniel is one of my teenage clients who is currently receiving pet therapy. Unfortunately Daniel doesn’t currently enjoy school and can be disengaged. The school was able to introduce dog therapy once a fortnight for fifteen minutes and immediately his mum could see the benefit. Daniel became more relaxed and started to really look forward to the days when he would have dog therapy. Since our involvement we have managed to now privately fund therapy for an hour a week and Daniel has become even more engaged and will come home telling his mum how his day has been and is able to tell funny stories of what the dog has done that day. Daniel’s mum has said ‘This is generally the only thing in a week that he looks forward to’. Hopefully things will improve at school but this is a great starting point, allowing Daniel to engage and talk about things with his mum when he gets home. It also allows Daniel to talk in confidence to the therapist and open up in a way that may be difficult without the therapy.

As you can see there are many mental health benefits of owning a dog. A dog gives the whole family a reason to get outside and go for a walk, put structure in their day and help with loneliness as well as help relieve anxiety.

I have found that Bo is the happiest dog I have ever owned and a happy dog makes for a happy owner. Sometimes Bo will join me while I am on the computer or on a Zoom call nudging me gently if she needs a quick cuddle or a pat on the head. This is a good reminder that we need to embrace those little joyful moments in our lives and appreciate the benefits of owning a dog. Of course the same could be said for all of you out there who own cats, guinea pigs, rabbits etc…..