How dogs help us to cope with stress and keep us healthy.

 

                       Woman walking a Labrador on the Malvern Hills


According to the mental health charity, MIND, more than half of adults (60%) and over two thirds of young people (68%) have said their mental health got worse during lockdown.

Bereavement, isolation, loss of income and fear are triggering mental health conditions or exacerbating existing ones. Many people may be facing increased levels of alcohol and drug use, insomnia and anxiety. The impact of lockdown, loneliness, loss of life and the inevitable recession that lies ahead, will affect all of us.

I have had up days and down days, faced with sheilding for 6 months. I know I’ve been one of the lucky ones as my husband here and one of my children came back home from London. Now we are in lockdown again more stress and anxiety is sure to follow.

But the two things that kept us going day in, day out, relieving our stress and providing routine were our dogs, Leo and Charley.

It has been well documented that during lockdown many people have decided that being at home is an opportunity to get a dog. Prices of puppies have sky rocketed and shelters have been inundated with requests. If you have been forced to stay at home it is not hard to see the attraction and there are so many benefits to dog ownership.

Though research on human and animal relationships is quite new, some studies have shown positive health effects so scientists are continuing to look at what the potential benefits might be.

Interacting with animals has been shown to decrease levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) and lower blood pressure. Other studies have found that animals can reduce loneliness, increase feelings of social support, and even boost your mood.

Dogs definitely serve as a source of comfort and support, which is why hospitals, nursing homes and schools often have access to therapy dogs. They are used to help reduce childrens’ and patients’ stress and anxiety. They really can improve well being.

Dr. Ann Berger, a physician and researcher in the USA says that “Dogs are very present. If someone is struggling with something, they just seem to know how to sit there and be loving. They focus their attention on the person all the time.”

I know personally that this is true. Whenever I’m upset, one, or sometimes both, of the dogs will appear to sit and keep me company.

Canine Companionship.

Living with a dog gives us a sense of security and it means there’s always someone to spend the day with. Dogs can be so affectionate and loving which makes them the perfect companion especially for older people and those living alone. Our two definitely make us feel needed and loved every day! 

Having a dog in the house can also give real comfort to those who suffer from anxiety. Taking them out for walks can provide encouragement and motivation for people who might be anxious about leaving the house as their naturally carefree behaviour helps to stop you thinking stressful thoughts.

This was exactly how I felt after a health scare left me feeling vulnerable and not wanting to go out.

When Leo arrived he became my constant companion, my confidente and personal trainer rolled into one. He demanded walks so I had to go out and the more I did it the more relaxed I became.

 

                    Girl cuddling a Labrador on the sofa.              

 

Routine and calm

Routines can provide great structure for anyone suffering with depression or anxiety and they are particularly helpful for people on the Autism Spectrum. Dogs need lots of regular care, from feeding to exercising which help build a solid routine. For people on the Autism spectrum, dogs can help to reduce sensory sensitivity, and increase the desire and ability to connect socially with others.

For those who are depressed or anxious, attachment to a dog can reduce the feelings of hopelessness. Their simple needs and affectionate nature can help us to see potential joy in situations that we might not otherwise notice. Whilst the necessary structure of dog ownership helps to maintain focus and keep going.

Socialising

Dogs are fantastic at encouraging people to get out in the fresh air, which is beneficial for a whole host of physical and mental health condititons, including anxiety and depression. Taking your dog for a lovely walk can also help you to find company by socialising with other dog owners.

There are so many health benefits when you own a dog.

Less illness.

Yes that’s right ….less illness. Our super clean homes have led to a big change in our in natural microbiome because our bodies are exposed to a less diverse mix of germs. This leaves us more susceptible to illness. Dogs are covered in germs so having one in the house means more diverse bacteria enters the home and in turn then get inside us. This can fire up our immune system, so people with dogs tend to get ill less frequently and less severely than people with no pets at all.

Reduced allergies.

While dog hair can be a trigger for people with allergies, growing up in a house with a dog makes children much less likely to develop allergies over the course of their lives and can reduce the risk of common allergies like asthma and eczema.

Healthier heart.

Lots of things involved in dog owning helps to keep your heart healthy, from exercise to stress reduction. Just the act of patting and stroking a dog can lower your heart rate and your blood pressure. In China they discovered that you also have a reduced risk of coronary artery disease if you own a dog. You are more likely to have lower cholesterol levels and are more likely to recover from a heart attack.

Having Leo definitely improved my stamina, helped with me get fitter which ultimately made me feel much healthier.

More exercise.

Dogs are great at encouraging people to get out in the fresh air, which is beneficial for a host of physical and mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. Exercise increases the endorphins that fight depression and anxiety in humans and it makes dogs happy so walking your dog is a win win activity.

Taking a dog for a lovely walk can also help people to find company by socialising with other dog owners, which reduces feeling of loneliness and isolation. Even during the pandemic and lock down we can still walk the dogs and maintain social distance whilst enjoying nature around us.

Dog owners probably get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day which is what is needed to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. We are out three times a day with Leo and Charley, 30 minutes round the village green in the morning, a long off lead trek of 90 minutes plus in the afternoon and another 30 minutes just before bed. I like to do the late walk as it blows away the cares of the day and gets rid of any tension that has built up whilst sewing.

Laughter and joy.

Dog owners are less likely to suffer from mental health issues than non-pet owners. Even if depressed, having a pet to take care of can help to improve well being. Caring for a dog requires a routine and activity. In my most miserable days, when I was ill and anxious about it, I couldn’t have stayed in bed if I had wanted to because Leo needed to play and had to go for his walk. His crazy antics made me laugh and kept me much more positive.

Playing with, stroking and even just watching your dog increases the amount of oxytocin in your brain which also leads to feeling more positive and an improved sense of wellness.

 

                    Man cuddling a rescue spaniel in the garden and laughing

 

More active social life.

Dogs can often be the talking point that triggers new relationships and even the ‘glue’ that keeps social networks together. One of my friends joined a walking group when she adopted a senior dog and her social life has rapidly grown as a result.

If you own a dog you are much more likely to chat with other people, usually about dogs and chatting with others definitely improves well being.

I have a sneaky feeling that our dogs are the added attraction that keeps my adult children coming back home to visit as often as they can. I know that was the case when I left home to train as a nurse, the lure of going home to feverish tail wagging, sleepy cuddles, and to see delight on Scamp’s face when I picked up his lead was such a draw.

Owning dogs at this stage in my life has certainly broadened my social network and unexpectedly propelled me into a new career. Running Leo Charley & Me has enabled me to meet other small pet business owners and chat with dog owners every day. This has been a real bonus during lockdown.

Less stress at work

Along with finding therapy dogs in care homes, it seems that some businesses are now allowing employees to bring their dogs to work. It has been found that stress levels are reduced in workers who interact with a dog during their working day. When dogs are in the office people take more breaks but incredibly, because they return energised, their productivity and job satisfaction levels go up. So some savvy companies are starting to allow dogs to come to work. That's a win win situation as far as I can see.

I’m particularly lucky as Leo and Charley are with me all day. They snooze at my feet whilst I sew and snore on the sofa in my little office whilst I do all the paperwork. They are great companions, often coming up close for a cuddle or giving me a nudge to tell me it is time for a break. Charley even likes to remind me when to eat! Every evening when my husband tells her it is dinner time she shoots up the stairs and barks at me to tell me to quit work for the day. We call her the Dinner Dog!

Stress, anxiety and depression are likely to be a part of all our lives at one point or another and more likely given the circumstances we are living in at the moment.

I think life is about creating your own happiness by finding elements of joy where you can and dogs seem to have an innate way of weaving happiness and joy into our lives. They make me feel more secure, calm my worries and lift my spirits when everything feels blue. Not only do dogs provide me with support when I’m down, they do it without judgement which makes me love them all the more.

Their unconditional love is powerful and life changing ……….they are truly mans’ best friends.

 

                    Dog and woman sitting on top of the world

            Labrador and rescue spaniel out on a forest walk with their owner wearing handmade and washable dog collars from Leo Charley & Me      


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