By Dr. Jeff Nalin, Psy.D.
Dog lovers have long been reaping the benefits of pet ownership, and the wellness field is increasingly taking notice of this phenomenon. In addition to physicians prescribing animal companions for physical conditions, therapists are increasingly recommending that animals be considered as part of a mental and emotional support system.
These emotional support animals, or ESA’s, can provide relief from a myriad of psychological distresses, including anxiety, depression, and bipolar episodes. They can boost mood, increase mental acuity, and contribute to our overall health.
While any form of animal can be considered an ESA, dogs are, by far, the most popular choice for this type of mental health support. For thousands of years, dogs have been bred to favor traits that align with our human needs. They help us to feel loved and valued, and always seem to know when we are in a bad mood. They appear to listen intently while we vent our problems, and don’t offer any unwanted advice. In addition to acting as a sympathetic best friend, they are simultaneously contributing to positive physical changes within us.
Simply petting a dog has been shown to affect the chemicals within our bodies in a beneficial way. When we share affection with our animals, feel-good chemicals, which include oxytocin, are released into the blood stream. Additionally, stress chemicals, such as epinephrine, are reduced. When we are free from stress and feeling good, our minds are in a better position for tackling problems productively and making effective decisions.
For those who lack socialization, dogs can, again, come to the rescue. Having a healthy social circle contributes to better mental health, overall, and can even boost your immune system. A recent study finds that pets can help humans to create, and maintain, these necessary social circles. The most popular choice for a networking pet is, not surprisingly, a dog.
Simply taking your dog for a walk can create the environment for forming new friendships, as fellow dog owners – and dog appreciators – are known to stop and chat about the furry companions. These chats with other humans can turn into regular meetings, and can even invoke the development of social support groups.
With feel-good chemicals, social support, and a healthy immune system in place, there is still more to the gift that a dog can bring.
A study has shown that dog owners obtain regular exercise more often than non-dog owners. Taking our dog for a walk gets the cardiovascular system flowing, which delivers more blood flow and oxygen to the brain. This, in turn, provides us with more mental clarity and focus, and can even contribute to the development of more brain cells.
In summary, a canine companion can clear our minds, soothe our moods, help to keep our bodies healthy, and provide us with more brain power. All this in exchange for a few pets and some kibble!
If you are considering adding an emotional support dog to your family, it pays to do your research. Certain breeds of dog are considered appropriate for certain needs, and the mental benefits of ownership can not overshadow the amount of commitment necessary to keep your new pal happy and healthy.
The laws surrounding ESA regulations are also constantly evolving, so be prepared for some resistance, should you decide to bring your companion along with you to social spaces. While no specific training is required for these types of animals, it is recommended that they know how to mind their manners around strangers.
About Dr. Jeff Nalin
Dr. Jeff Nalin, Psy.D. is an award-winning licensed Clinical Psychologist and a Certified Chemical Intervention Specialist. He is the Founder and Chief Clinical Officer at Paradigm Malibu Treatment Center, with locations in Los Angeles and San Francisco.