While vacationing in Florida several years ago, my husband and I were awakened from a sound sleep to the sound of a fire alarm and pounding on the door. The night manager told us to get dressed and exit the building immediately. My heart was pounding as we ran down six flights of stairs. We were herded outside along with the rest of the hotel guests where I saw another couple with their Golden Retriever.
“I need to pet that dog”, I told my husband.
I still can remember stroking the golden fur. My breathing slowed and I felt a sense of calm all over my body.
It turned out to be a false alarm. Some kids had decided it would be fun to pull the alarm and scare everyone. But I digress.
Studies have shown that there are both physical and mental health benefits to owning a pet. Pets, especially dogs can help reduce anxiety, depression, loneliness, and isolation, and encourage us to make healthy life choices. Let’s look at the following six benefits of being a dog owner:
- Owning a dog is good for your heart. Research shows that having a dog is linked to lower blood pressure as well as reduced cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This results in improved cardiovascular health and lowers your risk of having a heart attack. Even just petting a dog lowers your blood pressure and reduces muscle tension.
- Dogs are natural anti-depressants. Dog owners are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than those without canine companions. Walking or playing with your dog increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine in your brain – chemicals that contribute to increased alertness, improved concentration and focus, and a more positive mood. And of course, a dog will love you unconditionally. What could be more important for your overall mental health than giving and receiving love?
- A dog is a wonderful motivator. We can all find a million excuses to avoid working out. We forget that exercise can actually be fun. As a dog owner, you have the benefit of daily walks that improve muscle strength and boost your energy level. A dog will also get you outdoors. Natural sunlight gives you your daily dose of vitamin B and helps you sleep better at night.
- A dog will add structure to your day. There’s no getting around it – dogs need to be fed and taken out on schedule. Most of us have had our daily routines disrupted by the pandemic. Without structure, we have more time to dwell on our problems and make ourselves unhappy. Maintaining a regular schedule can help you feel more in control, especially during times of increased stress.
- Dogs not only provide us with love and companionship; they help us stay socially connected to others. Having a dog makes you more approachable and makes it easier to attract new people into your life. And going to a dog park is a great way to meet like-minded people.
- Finally, having a dog adds a sense of meaning and purpose to your life. You may have heard dog owners refer to pets as their “babies”. Our pets are like children to us; they trust us with their lives and depend upon us for food, shelter, and protection. They teach us the values of unconditional love, selflessness, and caring for others.
In closing, to put it more eloquently, I’d like to share a quote by John Grogan, author of the memoir Marley and Me:
“A person can learn a lot from a dog, even a loopy one like ours. Marley taught me about living every day with unbridled exuberance and joy, about seizing the moment and following your heart. He taught me to appreciate the simple things – a walk in the woods, a fresh snowfall, a nap in a shaft of winter sunlight. And as he grew old and achy, he taught me about optimism in the face of adversity. Mostly, he taught me about friendship and selflessness, and above all else, unwavering loyalty.”
Now excuse me while I go tend to my fur babies, Cooper and Callie.
Deborah Tannenbaum is a past therapist of Greenway Therapy.