How dogs can impact our mental health

Playing with dogs can increase production of happy hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin, promoting a positive state of mind.

The origin of the dog and the collaboration of the species with man has been speculated upon and discussed by many. It is widely believed the association came about well before any known historical records and there are several different theories regarding the evolution of the dog and the development of the sophisticated cross-species dynamics the dog has with man (Parker & Gilbert, 2015).

It is known, however, from archaeological records and through scientific research, that for thousands of years the dog has been helping man in several ways (Parker & Gilbert, 2015). In addition to working together for example in a guarding, herding and hunting capacity the special relationship which developed between humans and canines has been used to help people with a variety of disabilities and illnesses.

Common areas of canine support are guiding the blind, hearing for the deaf, helping people with mobility problems and providing emotional support in clinical settings and homes for the elderly (Calcaterra, et al, 2015).

The biophilia theory proposes humans have an innate tendency to make connections with other life forms (Wilson, 1984 as cited in Byström & Lundqvist Persson, 2015).

A study by Lobue, et al, (2013) supported this theory. They researched the effect of live animals and toy animals on young children and their findings indicated a natural affinity towards live animals even in the presence of novel and interesting toys; relationships with adults were also enhanced as they interacted with the child and the live animal.

This is just a snippet of the research that has been done on canine/human relationships which shows that dogs have a huge positive impact on the lives of humans including their mental health and welfare.

Let’s look at why caring for a dog can play such a vital and integral role in the emotional well-being of humans.

  • Physical activity is increased as the dog will need to be taken for walks. This encourages exercise and increases physical fitness. This is known to assist with mental health too.

  • Going out and about with a dog encourages contact with others, dog owners often stop for a chat comparing their canine companions. People who don’t have a dog but are dog lovers will also enjoy chatting about dogs. This can even help to form relationships.

  • Attending dog training classes is a great social activity, but please see the advice regarding choosing a class or instructor below. Not only do you and your dog get to learn together but you also get to meet other like-minded people. You can even go on to compete in a canine sport or if you’re not competitive join dog walking groups. Your instructor may run or know of a dog walking club.

  • Dogs offer companionship. For a person living alone, or someone who is left alone for much of the day, a dog can provide them with company and a feeling of being needed, providing a purpose in life.

  • Feelings of anxiety have been shown to be reduced when accompanied by a dog. Playing with dogs can increase the production of happy hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin, promoting a positive state of mind.

  • Dogs are great listeners, they aren’t judgemental, don’t criticise, offer unconditional love and can help to build confidence. Being responsible for a dog can help to build self-worth, it gives a person the knowledge they can care for another living creature.

  • Dogs add structure to the day. Having to feed, exercise and play with a dog helps to set a routine that needs to be followed. Having a routine each day helps to encourage consistency which has been shown to relieve stress levels.

“Playing with dogs can increase production of happy hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin, promoting a positive state of mind.”

For the person that can’t have a dog, for example, the landlord won’t allow pets, or the family are resistant to the notion of dog ownership, there are many opportunities to have canine contact at rescue centres. Volunteers to help care for the dogs are usually welcomed with open arms. This provides the dogs with care and the person with a feeling of being needed and useful. They will also have the opportunity to socialise with other dog lovers.

Whilst there are many positive ways a dog can help people with mental health issues, the choice of dog and dog breed must be considered, along with financial implications. Some dogs will be much more expensive to look after than others. Things such as the amount of food, grooming, vets fees, insurance must be considered. Is the person able to look after the needs of a puppy or would an older dog be better? How much space is available in the house/flat, is there an enclosed garden? I can’t express enough how important it is to research the breed before committing, to make sure the needs of the dog can be accommodated.

With crossbreeds all breeds within the mix should be researched as its difficult to say which traits the dog will inherit. If these things aren’t considered there could be serious implications for the person and the dog and rather than helping it could cause distress.

Of course, any human/canine partnership must be harmonious. A good and sympathetic trainer should be on board to teach the partnership how to respect and help each other.


To find a good trainer it is essential to check their credentials, the best place to start is the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors (APBC) or the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) membership of these organisations is gained through strict assessment of theoretical and practical knowledge. They have members all over the UK.

Our Expert

Christine Spencer is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist and member of the APBC and APDT. She has a BSc in Applied Psychology and MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Training. Christine is located in Malton, North Yorkshire and owns a very successful dog training and behaviour business with her son James, (also a member of the APDT) C S Canine Behaviour and Training.

Both Christine and James are registered trainers with the Animal Behaviour and Training Council. They have helped a number of people with disabilities and mental health issues develop a wonderful relationship with their canine companion.

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