Updated: Sep 24, 2020
It is no secret that Athena has been extraordinary for my mental health. Dogs are known to affect our health in a variety of ways. Specialized trained dogs can help alert impending seizures, navigate those with vision impairment, or detect low blood sugars. But how do dogs help with anxiety and depression?
Oxytocin and Serotonin Levels
Dogs provide unconditional love for their owners, but recent studies have shown that the relationship between dogs and owners increases the oxytocin levels in the body. Oxytocin, also nicknamed the "love hormone," can be associated with childbirth, feelings of love, social bonding, and decreased stress levels. Petting your dog can also boost and balance serotonin levels, which is an essential hormone in depression levels. Severe depression and anxiety should always be discussed with a doctor and therapist; however, having a dog can significantly impact, supplement, and regulate overall well-being as a natural and holistic option.
Because depression can often be associated with loneliness, owning a pet can increase companionship and reduce the feeling of being alone. Before having Athena, I was so anxious to leave the house on my own and live by myself. Having Athena gave me the confidence to feel safe on my own outside of my dad's house. Many animals can also read emotional expressions and often provide comfort during these challenging times. I'll never forget one of the first times I cried, and Athena came to check on me. She sat down in front of me and placed her paw on me as if to say, "It's okay, mom. It will be okay."
Different breeds have different energy level requirements. Athena, being a GSD, has a high working-dog energy level. This was beneficial for us because my new habits became focused on keeping us healthy through walks, hikes, and exercise. It is important to remember that these lifestyle changes only work with time and commitment! Being a dog owner can also introduce a sense of belonging to a community of dog lovers.
In addition to the exercise routines, pets can also provide a system by requiring responsibility. It is vital to feed and ensure water is available for your dog. This could also help with depression by forcing you out of bed in the morning for a walk and daily morning routine. Additional routines established could be training. Watching your puppy develop over time from learning their name to learning new commands and witnessing their house manners improve can also increase an owner's confidence and pride.
Be mindful that dogs that lack manners or social skills can increase anxiety. While I am a firm advocate for pets, they require a lot of time and dedication for a well-behaved dog. No one is perfect, and we are always learning with Athena. But, we can always tell when we haven't been giving her the time she requires and deserves. There is no such thing as a "bad dog." There is a scared dog, a tired dog, or a bored dog that wants attention. In our book, Your German Shepherd Puppy, the authors discuss that German Shepherds are not great with isolation. They need constant mental stimulation and exercise. Without these daily components, shepherds can potentially develop poor socialization skills such as aggression or obsessive behaviors. Every breed is different, and I hope to eventually cover some of the other qualities associated with each breed. When selecting a dog to help with anxiety and depression, understand your personal schedule and how much time you are willing to spend with a dog for daily routines such as walking, feeding, and training activities. A dog can provide the most unbelievable comfort, from unconditional love to daily companionship and a sense of belonging to a community. I hope to hear stories from you on how your animal help improved any depression and anxiety.
With a wagging tail,
The Pawsitive Writer