Want to Improve Your Mental Health? Hug a Dog.

dr. chavez with his dog

Being the proud pet parent of a dog isn’t just for “dog people!” It’s for everyone! Multiple scientific studies have proved that dogs have a number of positive effects on our health and well-being. Just as medications and medical treatments are indicated for everyone who needs them – the argument can be made that everyone needs a dog to stay healthy! Think twice before you hug a dog, though. Here’s why.

Before you hug a dog — don’t.

When it comes to humans, not everyone is a ‘hugger’. The same applies to most dogs.

Dr. Stanley Coren, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and writer at Psychology Today, found that out of 250 dogs used in one study, 204 of them showed signs of stress.

Paying attention to the dog’s body language, Dr. Coren found that most of the dog’s eyes exhibited whale eye, or “half moon” eyes. Other signs of anxiety and stress in the dogs included downward ears and avoiding eye contact.

These signs, if ignored, can easily escalate to dog bites. When a dog feels trapped, such as in a hug, the only choice they have between a fight or flight response is fight.

Dogs don’t express love the same way humans do. We want to hug dogs to express our love to them or feel good, but this is not a normal dog behavior. Hugging isn’t natural to them, so we must find other ways to show them a sign of affection that is in their comfort zone. A belly rub, pat on the head, dog training session, or treat your dog likes is an appropriate alternative.

7 ways dogs keep you healthy

dog giving kisses

Now that you know how to not show a dog love, here’s how a gentle cuddle or quality time can boost your health.

1. Lowers blood pressure

Several studies have shown reduced blood pressure in dog owners compared to non-owners. Don’t believe it? It’s so true, that all you have to do is picture it.

Try it next time you are a little nervous at the doctor and get a high blood pressure reading. Ask them to retake your blood pressure, but this time picture your dog coming to snuggle up to you in your head. Chances are your blood pressure result will come down to normal the second time around.

2. Lowers cholesterol

It is well documented that dog owners have lowered concentrations of plasma triglycerides and cholesterol compared to non-dog owners. The argument can be made, that in addition to taking medication, once you are diagnosed with high cholesterol, you should also be prescribed – a new puppy!

3. Increases chances of surviving a heart attack

Studies have shown improved survival rates following heart attacks in dog owners compared to non-owners. Simply having a dog living with you and your family members may save your life.

4. Hospital programs

Companion dogs are used successfully in “animal-assisted therapy” programs in hospitals, both to treat specific medical conditions and to improve patient outcomes. The treatment is so successful that it’s practically standard practice to have a program at most hospitals.

5. Mental health benefits

It is clear that the human-animal bond has an important psychological effect on humans (and probably the dog). There have been multiple documented cases of people suffering from depression being helped significantly by their bond with their dogs. This bond seems to be especially important in cases of PTSD or mutually experienced trauma as in those cases seen with war veterans and their pooch.

6. Weight loss & social interactions

Dogs have been shown to increase physical activity and social contact, which may also influence human health. In fact, one of the earliest documented studies associated with this phenomenon looked at the increased social interactions and well-being of dog keepers in their communities.

7. Endorphins!

A study showed that dogs and humans both release endorphins when experiencing close physical contact. Endorphins are the ‘feel good’ chemical that people release when they hug each other. Chances are these chemicals are behind the many health benefits that a dog can promote.

Animal behavior research shows that the domesticated dog differs significantly from its wild wolf counterpart when it comes to behavior and human interaction. In short, they have many of the same anxieties, fears, worries, and needs as us. They are dogs living in a human world that is not built for them. Occasional positive reinforcement may be needed just to remind them all is okay.

Let them know they’re a good dog

Dogs truly are our best friends. Dogs love unconditionally and there is little they won’t look past or forgive. They truly are our best friends because they are always there for us no matter what, without judgment or prejudice.

We can give them the same love and respect without unnecessarily raising their stress levels with a hug. They know you love them. A dog treat, praise, or petting session will get their tail wagging just fine.


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