How Dogs Can Improve the Lives of People Living with a Mental Illness

When people living with a mental illness were asked what helped them manage their conditions, many listed their pets. In fact, 80 percent of participants said their pets were a crucial part of their support network. There are many ways pets can help people to live mentally healthier lives. The study found that pets were beneficial in helping people to exercise and develop routines. Pets also offered a distraction, reduced the social stigma of mental illness, and provided and a sense of control, safety, and stability.

Companionship, Comfort, and Support Networks

The companionship that a pet offers is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety, as pets can have calming effects on their owners. Just stroking, sitting next to, or playing with a pet can help owners relax and calm their minds. Pets provide owners company, a sense of security, and someone with whom to share the day. Pets can be especially good company for the elderly living alone, who are particularly vulnerable to depressive symptoms.

Children with developmental, sensory, learning, and behavioral challenges often find working with animals to be calming. Professionals have used dogs and horses in therapy to work on fine motor skills, sequencing, following directions, and memory. The animals also help the children focus, build confidence, and feel comfortable.

Families can be invaluable in helping individuals to remain sober after completing clinical treatment for drug or alcohol addiction. Research shows that having a strong support network improves the chances of remaining drug free, especially for those who have been diagnosed with both a mental illness and an addiction. Many people consider their dogs to be family, and dogs can absolutely be included in the support system that helps recovering addicts to remain sober.

Exercising and Developing Routines

Pets can be great motivators for their owners, and dogs are especially great at encouraging exercise, as they require walks and playtime on a daily basis with most needing 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day (although some need more). Exercise is beneficial for those suffering from mental illnesses, particularly depression and anxiety. Not only does it ease symptoms, but it can also help keep them at bay.

While walking a dog, the owner is more likely to have conversations with other people, and thus it helps owners to stay socially connected and less withdrawn. “People who have more social relationships and friendships tend to be mentally healthier,” says the Mental Health Foundation. Also, caring for a pet (walking, feeding, grooming, etc.) provides a sense of purpose and achievement. It helps them feel valuable and needed.

Children with ADHD can benefit from a dog significantly. Being in charge of feeding, walking, and bathing the dog helps the child learn to plan and be responsible. Playtime releases excess energy, making the child more relaxed later in the day and calmer at night. Exercise also provides fresh air and increases oxygen-filled blood flow to the child's brain, which increases his or her ability to concentrate. Because they’re great listeners, offer unconditional love, and never criticize a child for having too much energy, dogs can aid in boosting the child's self-confidence.

A hyperactive, anxious, or aggressive dog may not have a calming effect, so it’s best to ensure the dog is trained properly. Luckily, there are professional dog trainers who can help if the dog is a puppy just learning new tricks or a rescue that needs a bit of guidance. Whether the individual is a child with ADHD, an elderly individual with depression, or a middle-aged adult with a dual diagnosis of anxiety and addiction, having a dog can help him or her live a mentally healthier life.

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.