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Black cocker spaniel on white furniture

Can dogs improve our mental wellbeing?

Or have we all gone barking mad?

As lockdown hit, the demand for puppies and dogs in the UK hit an all time high. The Kennel Club reported a 140% increase in enquiries through it’s puppy portal year-on-year and The Dogs Trust were left with empty kennels as people flocked to rehome a four legged friend.

So have we gone barking mad or is the converse true? Is (wo)man’s best friend actually the answer to wellbeing in the 21st Century?

According to Positive Psychology, there are five cornerstones to wellbeing; positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and achievement (PERMA)

Can dog ownership really help us meet each of the five pillars?

Positive emotion

It’s a straightforward start. Sat here, typing away, I only need to look down at the dog bed beside me where chief Moment to Paws-er Ruby is laid with her legs splayed in the most unladylike position, to be filled with a surge of love and happiness. And there’s good reason for it. When we look at or have fun with our pets, our smiles automatically tigger positive brain chemistry, raising serotonin and dopamine levels – the nerve transmitters associated with calmness and happiness. What’s more, it has been proven that, when we look into a dog’s eyes, our bodies release oxytocin which is a hormone directly related to the relief of stress and anxiety.

Cocker spaniel on back

Engagement

Have you ever tried playing ‘tug’ with a dog while watching TV or thinking about your next meeting? Let me tell you, no you haven’t… it’s just not possible! When a dog plays ‘tug’ with you, they expect you to commit to it as much as they do. The slightest reduction in tension and they will be on your knee questioning your life choices. Engagement is all about focusing on one thing and letting your mind switch off to the distractions that we so often allow in. Playing with, stroking or even walking your dog gives you an opportunity to truly switch off; something which is so vital to our overall wellbeing.

Relationships

It’s true what they say, there are two ways in which adults make friends within their neighbourhood; have a baby or get a dog.

Until Ruby came home, I knew my next door neighbour and…nope that was it, just my next door neighbour. Now, I can’t walk to the Post Office without stopping to chat to 10 friendly faces. Dogs are conversation catalysts; they seem to remove the social barriers that are so high when you walk alone and help us to form new friendships.

Meaning

Dog’s give us purpose. They give us a reason to get up in the morning and they’ll always be ecstatic to see you. I have read a number of heartwarming stories from people suffering with depression or PTSD whose lives have been changed as a result of looking after a dog. A purpose is crucial when negative thoughts are abundant. These thoughts can be overwhelming but when your dog drags you off to the nearby woodland, it leaves less room in the mind for negativity and replaces it with positive emotion.

Achievement

Sometimes it’s the little wins in life that put a smile on our faces. When you teach your dog a new trick, or they finally realise that the toilet is outside, not in your favourite shoes, it can give you a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction.

So there you have it. The five pillars of happiness as seen through a dog owner’s eyes. Maybe we’re not so barking mad after all (well, not in a derogaroty sense anyway…).

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