By Jessica Scarpati –
Loyal and lovable, dogs have unquestionably earned the mantle of man’s best friend. But are they also man’s best therapist? A new study suggests that a stroll with Fido is more effective at reduce stressing than taking a walk with a person.
Two dog shelters, in fact, teamed up with one university to examine if dog walking could have a positive impact on military veterans who suffer from PTSD. This is a debilitating mental health condition that affects up to 20 percent of veterans who served in Afghanistan or Iraq and perhaps 30 percent of Vietnam veteran, according to the National Center for PTSD. By comparison, the PSTD rate among civilians is about 3.5 percent.
Florida Atlantic University researchers focused on what happened when military veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were assigned a weekly half-hour walk with either a shelter dog or another person.
Over the study’s four weeks, scientists tracked several physical and psychological signs of stress in the two groups. One such signal was heart rate variability, which measures changes in time between heartbeats and has been linked to stress levels and emotional resiliency.
Vets with severe PTSD symptoms in the dog-walking group saw the greatest improvements in heart rate variability, suggesting that footing it with a furry friend can soothe an agitated mind. For veterans with severe PTSD who walked with a human the results were not as promising. In fact, stress levels actually worsened over time when the vets took a stroll with another person.
“Considering the large number and availability of shelter dogs in the United States, it really makes sense to consider the potential for these dogs to be involved in a unique intervention that combines the benefits of human-animal interaction with the benefits of altruistic action like volunteerism,” said Erika Friedmann, a researcher who co-authored the study.
While the study had a narrow scope, the mood-boosting benefits of roving the neighborhood with Rover have been recognized elsewhere and more broadly. For example, researchers focused on dog owners in northern England found that the happiness of people and their pooches were closely intertwined.
“One of the biggest joys for us is when one of us stands at one part of the field and the other on the far field, and he just runs,” said one dog owner in the study. “I feel a physical change in my body when I watch him run, which has never been created by anything else, really.”
Some positive pooch feedback is simply anecdotal as with the case of Rob Osman. Inspired by his own experiences with anxiety and depression, he founded the group “Dudes and Dogs Walk and Talk” after seeing how healing it was to walk his dog, Mali. The group aims to shatter the stigma surrounding men and mental health by using a joyful activity to help create a judgment-free space in which men feel safe to express vulnerability.
“Dogs are like four-legged antidepressants,” Osman told Today. “When people are around the dog, they drop their defenses.”
Of course, dog walking isn’t always a pleasurable experience. Most dog owners can attest that, like mail carriers, neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night can supersede a pup’s need to exercise or heed nature’s call.
Aiming to “provide a bit of balance to the abundance of overly rosy press reports on the healing power of pets,” psychologist Hal Herzog highlights in Psychology Today several studies that poke holes in such notions, including one that found that dog walkers had more “bad mental days” than people who walked without a pup.
“There are several reasons why the public has an exaggerated view of the healing powers of companion and therapy animals.” Herzog explained. What’s one of them? “People just like the idea that pets are good for people and that animals are effective therapists,” he said.
That, of course, is a ruff assessment.