Therapy dogs bring cold noses, warm hearts, and joy to schools, hospitals, and homes. However, we don’t need to have a trained “therapy dog” to benefit from a great relationship with our pets and enjoy the many possible therapeutic benefits available. Responsible dog ownership can improve our mood and mental health, help us develop a healthy lifestyle, reduce stress and generally improve relationship building skills.
By following a few simple guidelines, we can not only develop a more meaningful relationship with our canines, we can improve our overall health and well-being.
We wouldn’t expect our Australian Sheep Herder to forget his breed’s behavioral instincts toward high-activity just because we want to snuggle on the couch, right? And think about a Chihuahua hiking long distances or hanging out on our paddleboard while we get our exercise in for the day. If we love swimming but our dog is prone to ear infections, we may be unnecessarily adding health risks to our lifestyle. It won’t work if the activities we have in mind don’t match the breed and needs of the dog we’ve adopted.
Acknowledging limitations and adjusting expectations according to the activity level and needs of our dog is a great check-in exercise and can help us acknowledge our own abilities, needs, and lifestyle preferences. When we can understand and appreciate our own needs as well as the needs of our canines, this will increase our ability to not only tolerate, but understand those around us.
Two-way listening is key to any healthy relationship and responsible dog ownership is no different. We don’t need to train our dogs to do back flips and show up on the next season of “Amazing Animals,” but both of us should be able to work together and live free of the stresses of poor habits (i.e., chewing on furniture, unruly barking, and inappropriate jumping).
Seeking out and committing to high-quality training is liberating because it removes unnecessary distractions and allows us to spend quality time on more important activities. Good training is a combination of both of us listening and responding to each other, which will instill a healthy connectedness. This bleeds into all relationships as we develop listening skills and can more easily relate to those in other areas of our lives.
Become Exercise Buddies
A healthy lifestyle is important to ease symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other common conditions. Studies have shown that dog guardians are more likely to meet their exercise goals than non-dog owners. And Harvard health studies have linked dog ownership to more consistent activity with a minimum 20 minutes a day, 5 days a week linked to weight loss and improved overall mental health.
Let’s put our phones away, grab some poo bags and go for a walk, a hike, or just play chase at the park. Pay attention to what your dog finds interesting or fun. Regular exercise will deepen our connection with our canines, eradicate most dog behavior problems, and will keep us fit and healthy.
Meet New Friends Together
Often a conversation starter, dogs can act as a social lubricant. As long as our pup can be made comfortable by our side with water, shade, and minimal noise discomfort, we’ll all be happy spending an hour at the outdoor patio of our favorite cafe, a common socializing opportunity powerhouse.
More importantly, responsible dog ownership is a club. We stop and talk to each other on walks and hikes. We enjoy play-dates and commiserate during training sessions. We talk allergies and levels of toy indestructibility at the pet supply store. If we socialize together we’ll not only be providing for our companion’s social needs, but we’ll find a community of dog-people to which we have membership. That ongoing interaction and sense of belonging is strong therapy for all of us.
Studies have found that stroking a pet has a calming effect and can lead to reduced stress and lower blood pressure. Affection is also an important part of our mental and emotional well-being. This can include some grooming activities, sitting quietly on the couch massaging the ears and shoulders, or a fun belly-rubbing session.
We just need to pay attention to what our canines actually like as much as we pay attention to the benefits you’re reaping. If anxiety-relief is the purpose, for example, we need to be sure we are both benefitting and that our snuggle pursuits aren’t stressing out our dogs, who might prefer activity to relieve stress.
Make Time & Protect That Time
Dogs live in the moment. Other than missing us when we’re gone and wanting to please us, they don’t worry about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow. They can help us become more mindful and to appreciate the joy of being in the moment.
This means it’s our responsibility to set time aside for our pets. Make time and protect that time. If our lives are always moving quickly, this may be a challenge, but it’s also a great lesson in making time for the things, activities, and relationships that really matter.
Perhaps the most famous benefit of responsible dog guardianship is companionship. A close trusting relationship offers comfort, eases anxiety, increases self-confidence, and can help us become more mindful. Companionship can help to prevent illness and even add years to our lives.
Caring for a living animal, not just a dog, can help make us feel needed and wanted. It can take the focus away from our problems, especially if we live alone. Most guardians talk to their pets for company and to work through their troubles. Perhaps most importantly, nothing beats loneliness like coming home to a wagging tail and wet kisses. Ultimately, therapy dogs don’t have to be service animals. We can develop a therapeutic relationship with our dogs with just a little mindful habit-building.