According to the ASPCA’s website, 3.3 Million dogs enter shelters each year. Of those, 670,000 are euthanized (down from 2.6 million euthanized in 2011). The good news in that statistic is that 2.63 million dogs are either adopted into new families or strays are returned to their owners. Adopting a shelter dog offers it a second chance at a safe home, love, and care. It can also have definite health benefits for owners.
It’s no secret most people’s lives are more stressful these days. In fact, the American Psychological Association released a report on Stress in America which outlines the major stressors affecting Americans in 2019. Unsurprisingly, health care concerns are one of the factors near the top of the list. Stress has a huge impact on overall health and can lead to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and heart disease.
Finding Ways to De-Stress with a Dog
Physical touch is one of the most powerful ways to alleviate stress, and most dogs welcome that touch unconditionally, even seeking it. It lowers the stress-induced production of cortisol in the brain. Cortisol has many negative effects on the brain’s structure and function – especially over long periods of time spent in heightened stressful states. Anyone who has ever taken a moment to pet a sleeping dog’s head will tell you it gives you an instant sense of calm.
Exercise has been proven to reduce stress, in addition to its other, more physical benefits such as improving blood-flow, regulating weight, and increasing strength. The release of endorphins in the brain during exercise is what produces that euphoric feeling many runners feel. Do you know who else loves walks, runs, and exercising? Dogs. Having a dog who not only enjoys but needs regular exercise can be motivational for owners who may not otherwise give themselves the benefit of exercising on a regular basis.
Focus is lost when someone is stressed. Having a dog can bring you into the present moment, and can be the mindful distraction needed to shift the chaos of many things into the simplicity of taking the dog for a walk, or feeding it, or playing fetch. It pulls you out of your own head into the mindset of something or someone else needing your attention on a simple task.
Socializing with others who have similar interests also boosts endorphins. When you take a dog to a dog park and interact with other dog owners, that socialization has benefits. Even just taking the dog for a stroll through a neighborhood offers opportunities to interact with neighbors who may ask about the dog or want to pet the dog. A well-behaved dog is a fantastic conversation starter that could lead to friendships.
A Sense of Purpose
Many people who have health issues decline when they can’t find a reason to go on. Having a sense of purpose in the care of a dog can result in improved health overall, especially for elderly patients or others who may not always have companionship. That decreased sense of loneliness can be a huge booster to anyone’s mood and overall well-being.
Before Heading to the Shelter
Adopting a dog has many great benefits for both the person and the dog, but it would be irresponsible not to add the caveat that owning a dog is not the answer in every case. In some instances, it may not be appropriate to a person’s living situation, their mental state (unable to remember to feed, walk, or clean up after the dog), or their physical situation (allergies, unable to exercise the dog). Matching a dog’s size, needs, and personality to a patient’s needs and lifestyle is key and can take some research. Never surprise someone with a dog, especially someone with health risks. Always discuss the needs, expectations, and responsibilities beforehand. Keep in mind that it may add more stress to a caregiver’s day as well.