During this unsettled and scary time, I think we are all starting to realize just how much our dogs relieve stress and anxiety.
I don’t know about you, but if I look at the emotions I have been cycling through in the past 2 weeks it’s just nuts. Fear, sadness, anger, surges of feeling empowered mixed with surges of feeling completely powerless. . . it’s a lot to navigate.
There are so many ways our dogs make us happier during stressful times. Make sure you are using your “dog therapist” each day, not only to help you, but perhaps to help someone not lucky enough to have a dog to keep their spirits up.
How Can Dogs Relieve Stress & Anxiety?
The “Scientific” Answer
There is plenty of scientific proof out there documenting how dogs can help lower stress levels. Here are just a few proven ways dogs relieve stress and improve health:
- Lower blood pressure
- Improve recovery from heart disease
- Increase self-esteem
- Stimulate the release of oxytocin (hormone that promotes feelings of well-being)
I could link to a lot of studies and quote researchers, but I think the unscientific, common-sense piece of this speaks to our hearts more than any study I can tell you about.
If science reasoning is your thing, read more about the scientifically-proven benefits of an emotional support dog.
The “Unscientific” Answer
Dog owners don’t need studies to prove what they already know and experience every day.
Dogs are non-judgmental, full of unconditional love, and always have time in their schedule for us. They live in the moment and savor the journey.
This non-judgmental love is behind the success of programs where kids read to dogs each week, and why dogs are brought to campus during finals week to help relieve the stress of maxed-out students. Have you ever walked into a nursing home with a dog or a puppy? Stoic faces melt into smiles, you can literally feel the need and craving for love as the dog approaches them.
There are times when you don’t need to know the science why. One student said it best:
“I don’t know what it is, but he just makes me happy.”
Activities to Lessen Your Stress and Anxiety
So what can you do with your dog to help calm your fears and wash away that tight-chest feeling caused by stress of the known and fear of the unknown?
1. Take Petting Breaks
You know how you are encouraged to take breaks from work and walk around, stretch, and get the blood flowing? After you’ve moved and stretched, add 5-10 minutes of dog petting and interaction.
Schedule these petting breaks into your work-from-home routine. Add reminders to your phone that ding and tell you to stop what you’re doing and go find your dog.
If you need to destress, sit down with your dog and pet them. It will release oxytocin, lower your blood pressure, and help you feel calm and relaxed.
2. Play a Game
If you need to laugh, play with your dog. Hide from them, then call their name and make them find you. Watch their body language when they do: their tail will explode into a blurry wagging fury, mouth will hang open in a big smile, and eyes will dance with happiness.
Take them into the yard and play a game of fetch or run around with them. Being around a happy dog is good for the soul.
3. Go for a Walk
Choose a time and route that will help you the most.
Think about what time of day your stress level is highest, and try doing your dog walk then. Also, try new walking routes! They will be more exciting for your dog and a breath of fresh air for you as well.
Be present on the walk:
If you notice your brain starts to spin and rehash fears or stress, picture yourself setting these thoughts in a box on your front porch, closing the lid, then turn your attention to what’s around you.
Look around and notice what wildlife or people you see. If you’re in a city or neighborhood, look at the different houses or buildings and admire the yard or building you like the best.
Listen to the sounds around you and enjoy them.
At some point, watch your dog. Can you tell what they are noticing on the walk?
If your dog seems happy, notice how they tell you – what is their body language? Then watch how it changes when they hear or see something they are curious or excited about.
When your dog stopped to sniff, did their tail or ears change as they sniffed? Watch their tail for awhile and see if you can tell the reason each time the tail sinks lower or raises up higher.
You will get to know your dog in a more intimate way, and over time you will start to know their emotions just by watching subtle changes in their body language.
Your dog will be calmer too. If you wonder why, read more about the calming effect that dogs experience during decompression walks for dogs.
4. Explore a New Trail
Look for a new trail you could explore. Drive to a state park or state forest and enjoy a new setting. You have more time on your hands right now, this a a great opportunity to find new places to go with your dog.
Getting out of the house can be a good “reset” button if you are in a funk. Exploring a new area is a great distraction and will leave you feeling calmer and more refreshed.
This may sound a bit crazy, but it really makes you feel better. Dogs listen. They care that you are upset. They seem to know just how you feel, and want to comfort you.
Dogs won’t solve your problems, but just talking about your stresses or sadness can make you feel better.
Help Your Dogs Relieve Stress for a Friend or Relative
You know the surge of happiness you get when you watch a video of a baby erupting into a belly laugh? Watching a happy video creates a feeling of joy in anyone who sees it.
Here’s an example: a few weeks ago someone shared this video of a lab named Stella whose over-the-moon happiness when jumping into leaf piles had been captured on video by her family. Take a look:
You literally can’t help smiling, can you?
Spread the joy! If you have a family member you aren’t able to go see right now, make some videos to share with them:
- Show your dog playing hide and seek and they search the room for a toy or a treat, or even more fun, have your kids hide and video the dog finding them!
- Teach your dog to play dead, roll over, or high five. Better yet – teach them to wave hello to the person watching the video!
- Does your dog like to sleep in weird positions? Make a video compilation.
- And share Stella’s leaf-jumping video too. Because that dog is so.darn.happy.
Don’t have time to make a video? Call a friend or loved one on Facetime or Zoom for a chat with you & your dog on screen for the whole conversation.
Happiness is contagious, use your dog to brighten a friend or loved one’s day!
Dogs are the Best Medicine for the Soul
Dogs relieve stress and anxiety in so many ways. They distract us from our worries, help restore our mental energy, and give us hope.
As we all strive to get through these tough days filled with uncertainty and fear, we need to learn from our dogs and live in the moment. Enjoy the “now,” and the small things throughout the day that make you smile.
Here’s to our dogs, nature’s best medicine.