The therapeutic benefits of dogs: How pets can help in your recovery

October 28, 2021

Written by Diney Bindman

It is undisputed that spending time with a pet, and particularly a dog, can be therapeutic, the kind of healing that is less about traditional practices and more about the comforting nature of unconditional love. Dogs provide us with immense emotional support in the darkest of times, and our canine companions can trigger neural pathways similar to those that occur to form the parent-baby bond. 

Every morning upon waking, I see my puppy, Bertie, and can’t help but smile, despite a troubled night of sleep due to the various life-changing circumstances I’ve experienced - along with so many others across the world - over the last 16 months. In fact, one of the biggest challenges I faced was the sudden, untimely death of my previous and much adored young dog, who was a loyal companion during an isolating and uncertain time, made all the more so due to the fact that I am recovering from anxiety and trauma.

One look at the various social media platforms proves that I’m not alone in experiencing the joy and comfort of pet ownership. There are millions of posts, threads, channels and accounts dedicated to sharing pet photos and stories, most of which are heart-warming and hilarious. Following in their footsteps, I decided to start an Instagram account in Bertie’s name, and what I found was a host of wonderful dog owners who adore their dogs as much as I love Bertie, and who feel, overwhelmingly, that their dogs have helped them to find their path to recovery from various dark places brought on by bereavement, addiction, depression and eating disorders.

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A post shared by Di (@bertie_boo_cavapoo)

Responses to my posts have been both honest and moving. One was from John, who had a high profile career but was overwhelmed by the stress. His family and friends didn’t know how to handle his recovery, and therapy didn’t seem to help much, so he reluctantly began taking antidepressants at the same time his wife took ownership of her sister’s dog. That was the turning point, John says. 

“Taking her out for walks in the fresh air, putting one foot in front of the other, lifted my spirits. Having her curled up next to me on the sofa, checking my face as if she knew something was wrong, made me smile. There is something almost magical about dogs, and she got me through, without doubt.”

How can dogs and pets help your mental health?

Healthy social bonds can play a key role in mental health, and dogs can certainly fill that role. Dog care and self-care are linked, according to psychologist June McNicholas, as they can be a lifeline for socially isolated people.

Dogs break down social barriers and often allow comfortable and natural interaction. They also provide us with daily encouragement to become better people, as they are entirely indifferent to class, race, gender, clothes size or diet and are totally non-judgmental of our weaknesses.

Even in extreme situations, dogs have the unique power to alleviate stress, anxiety and loneliness. Feedback from the Centre for Mental Health was off the scale from some of the UK’s most dangerous and violent prisoners suffering from schizophrenia. They run an animal therapy centre to give prisoners the chance to care for a dog, and it has helped them develop problem-solving skills, empathy, attention to the needs of others and a sense of responsibility.

Dog therapy has been used successfully in care homes, where often lonely residents can “gaze into the dog’s eyes and get a wonderful sense of wellbeing,” says a friend’s nonagenarian Mum. 

The simplicity of a dog’s love is a continuing joy to dog owners, along with the social and mental benefits of daily walks and social interaction. And for those struggling to recover from trauma or addiction, this constant, positive presence and a dog’s need for routine can serve as lifelines.

Some of the responses I received illustrate this point explicitly. Many owners shared heart-breaking stories of losing a loved one to a terminal illness, suffering mental breakdowns, or coping with an addiction to drugs. The unifying thread in each case was that they believed, without a doubt, that it was a dog who pulled them through the depths of despair and back into the light. 

Recovering from any trauma, addictive behavior or mental health issue is challenging, but the unconditional love from a dog can be an invaluable support on our personal journeys to a healthier way of life. There is no one roadmap for recovery, but the benefits of owning a pet are undeniable, and for many people, pet ownership is an essential part of their recovery process. If you are struggling with an addiction or mental health issue, the rewards of pet ownership might be the key to helping you get back on track and find the courage to put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time.

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