Dogs & Depression: Can Your Dog Help You Cope?

Every body feels a bit down in the dumps from time to time, but for those who suffer from clinical depression, the effects can be life shattering. Owning a dog, as any K9 Magazine reader will testify, brings with it a set of benefits, one of which is having a ready made best friend at your disposal.

It has always been informally acknowledged that the sincere nudge of a cold, wet nose can chase the blues away, but the cathartic and life enhancing effects of canine companionship can be harnessed in a more structured way to cope with depression, as Patrick Ellis discovered.

While many people with depression turn to family and friends for support, research has shown that enlisting the help of a dog – may also have a positive effect on overall health and well-being.

As part of her commitment to helping people with the illness, Emmy Award winning actress, Linda Dano, is leading Support Partners: Canine Companions, a program that offers practical tips on how to expand support networks by incorporating dogs into the recovery process.

dogs and depression

The US-based program has been sponsored by a leading animal health company and the Psychiatric Service Dog Society.

"Depression is an illness often associated with strong social stigma, causing people to withdraw from their lives, intensifying the emotional symptoms of the illness, like sadness and feelings of worthlessness," said Rakesh Jain, M.D., M.P.H., director of psychiatric drug research, R/D Clinical Research Center, Lake Jackson, Texas. "While a doctor, family and friends should form the basis of any support network, dogs can play an important role by being a constant companion. They can help reduce these emotional symptoms, while possibly helping other symptoms, like fatigue or lack of energy, with daily walks."

Research has shown that there are many potential benefits to having a dog that correlate to areas health-care professionals believe can help people with depression.

Linda Dano, Support Partners: Canine Companions spokesperson, has personally experienced the benefits a dog can have in helping to manage depression. "As someone who has always been a dog-owner, my dogs became more important to me than ever when I was diagnosed with depression," says Dano."I started getting help from my physician and support from my friends, and soon realized that my dogs also gave me a sense of comfort, purpose and companionship. Many days when all I wanted was to stay in bed, alone, I knew I had to get up to take care of Mo and Charlie and comfort them as they comforted me."

"There are many simple things you can do with your dog if you're depressed that may help you feel better," explains Joan Esnayra, Ph.D., president of the Psychiatric Service Dog Society, a non profit organization that works with mental-health consumers who wish to train their dogs to assist with the management of depression.

Joan continues, "Taking your dog for a walk can help you get some exercise. Teaching your dog a new trick can give you a sense of accomplishment. Even petting your dog can help with your recovery by relieving stress and anxiety."

Let Your Dog Help You Cope With Depression

Those who suffer from depression are often heard saying that it's not something that can be cured with a series of mediation, it is a lifelong illness, the effects of which swell and recede as times change. But in order to manage the symptoms of depression, dog owners already have a valuable ally.

Embrace the routine of dog ownership - Dogs thrive on routine and routine is said to be a force for good when dealing with depression.

Having a structure to follow when all a person wants to do is stay in bed is motivational, many people have testified that the needs of their dog outweighs their own needs quite substantially, and those dog owners coping with depression often express that if wasn’t for their dogs, they wouldn’t need to face the day.

Talk to your dog - We all do it and we know our dog hasn’t got a clue what we’re on about, but there is always that shred of a feeling tucked away that says differently. Health professionals often advise keeping a diary or a journal as a way of working with depression, crediting the flow and organisation of thoughts and feelings as a counter to the often confused and overwhelmed sensation that depression can bring.

Talking with a dog can achieve the same result, verbalising one’s feelings is a good way of getting them in order and you know for a fact that a dog can keep a secret.

Remember why you are a dog owner – Feelings of depression can be triggered by many things. It is quite common for feelings of uselessness or helplessness to trigger a bout of depression. Dog owners can find a way around these feelings when they focus their thoughts on why they became dog owners.

Sharing time and space with an old friend is one benefit of dog ownership that helps with depression on any level, but looking deeper and remembering that your dog relies on you as much as you rely on him can often bring into focus a renewed sense of value.

Follow your dog’s lead – It has been said many times, but dogs are amongst the best animals on earth at coping with adversity. If there is a bright side to any situation, you can guarantee that your dog will be looking at it.

Many people refer to a person or incident as giving them inspiration and strength to cope with their feelings – what more inspiration can a dog lover need than a dog that lives for the companionship of his owner.

How Dogs Can Help Their Owners: Key Facts

The majority of pet owners feel their pets are extremely important when they are sad, lonely or depressed.

Dogs can provide the desirable qualities of a best friend, like listening, physical contact and empathy.

Half of dog owners believe that their pet makes a major difference to their lives, ranking increased exercise and companionship as the two most important differences.

Talking to dogs is related to greater life satisfaction and better physical and mental health.

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