What Dogs Do For Your Mental Health

July 6th 2015

A month before my 12th birthday, I wrote my parents a five-page essay asking for a dog. I'd been begging them to get a "real pet" for years because our feral cat refused to leave the garage and hated everyone, but it wasn't until they read my letter that they finally changed their minds.

So, in summer 2000, we picked up 7-month old Roxy from a breeder in Modesto, California.

A full-bred Jack Russell Terrier, Roxy was a "terrorist terrier" with regards to training, chased many of the neighborhood felines (including our own), and took any opportunity to bolt out the front door. She wasn't always easy, but when my dad passed away in 2006, three months before I went off to college, I realized just how lucky our family was to have Roxy, who is alive, well, and healthy at nearly 16 years of age today. Though we were warned not to give her so many table scraps throughout her life, she's surpassed her breed's average life expectancy of 15 years, and we're so grateful for that.

In spite of her "Marley and Me" behavioral problems, Roxy has given us so much. When I wept over a mean letter from an ex-boyfriend in high school, Roxy heard my sobs from the other side of the house and came running into my room to be with me. When a distant relative stayed at our house for a few weeks because he was sick with mononucleosis, Roxy refused to leave his side. When my mom and I both had the flu one Christmas, Roxy worked overtime to comfort us equally. When I playfully screamed as a former paramour tickled me in the living room one day, Roxy growled to make sure he wasn't hurting me. 

Though she's always been nice to me, I recently came to the conclusion that Roxy was never really meant to be my pet. I made a compelling case to adopt her, but I truly believe we purchased Roxy to keep my mother company later on down the road. We couldn't have known that her husband was going to die right before I left for college, but I can't ignore the bizarre timing of it all, nor can I overlook the tremendous company Roxy has been to my mother.

"She is a wonderful dog and has been there for me for more than 15 years," my mom told me. "A dog gives you unconditional love each day and is always happy to see you when you walk in the door."

Research proves that canines can add so much to a person's life. Many colleges offer "puppy therapy" sessions throughout finals week to comfort students during a particularly stressful time.

Richelle Reid, who started Emory University's pet therapy program in 2012, told USA Today that she's seen firsthand the positive impact of dogs on students.

"We had a student who came in and a staff person commented they had never seen that student smile," Reid said. "It has had positive effects, helping them to just have a moment to clear their minds and not have to think about studies, not have to think about books."

Researcher Loise Francisco-Anderson told the publication that you can share things with dogs you wouldn't with humans.

"You can release some of the emotions to a pet that you can't to a human," Francisco-Anderson said. "A pet keeps it confidential. You don't have to worry about someone else saying, 'Oh, I think she's having a nervous breakdown over the science exam.'"

According to experts, an increasing number of Americans are turning to dogs to help with mental health issues. A few years ago, Sgt. Charles Hernandez told CNN that his dog, Valor, helped him fight against symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

"I'm alive again," Hernandez said. "What keeps me going is my dog."

Hernandez is one of many people who seek help from dogs to cope with PTSD. Researchers are finding that interacting with dogs can increase the hormone oxytocin, which "improves trust, the ability to interpret facial expressions, the overcoming of paranoia and other pro-social effects—the opposite of PTSD symptoms," Warrior Canine Connection worker Meg Daley Olmert told Smithsonian Magazine.

Dogs can also be helpful for the incarcerated. Florida's Blackwater River Correctional Facility has inmates train pups for America's VetDogs, which teaches canines to help veterans with PTSD. Scott A. Middlebrooks, the warden at Blackwater, told WTSP that one prisoner became overwhelmed with emotion by the presence of a dog.

"One inmate was able to pet one of the dogs and he broke down and cried because it was the first time he had been able to pet a dog in 12 years," Middlebrooks said. "It reminds him of that human element that you miss in here. It's an incentive to do the right thing and stay out of trouble."

Earlier this year, photographers Shaughn Crawford and John DuBois were amazed to witness the powerful bond between dogs and California State Prison inmates.

“I was really blown away by how compassionate they were and how much these guys cared for these animals,” Crawford told TIME. “Their passion and their love for these dogs was really heartwarming. A lot of times, they would start crying when they talked about it.”

Dr. Carole Lieberman, author of "Coping With Terrorism: Dreams Interrupted," told CNN that everybody could probably use a therapy dog, as no one has it easy in life.

"In a way, we could all use a psychiatric service or therapy dog because of the incredible amount of stress that we're all under," Dr. Lieberman said.

Dr. Lieberman added that owning a pet can boost a person's confidence. Becoming a pet owner is a huge commitment and helps you "prove to yourself that you can take care of another living creature" and "reassures you that you can take care of yourself."

A study from the American Psychological Association (APA) affirms Dr. Lieberman's comments. Part of the research reveals that pet owners have higher levels of self-esteem and get more exercise, which, as noted by "Legally Blonde" heroine Elle Woods, gives you endorphins and boosts your happiness:

Julie Myerson, who contributed to last year's collection of essays on dogs titled, "My Dog, My Friend," said the most wonderful thing about dogs is the fact that they're willing to show you love when it seems no one else is.

"Most of all, when your confidence is at its lowest, when you feel battered – by life, death and (especially) other humans – a dog will shove her nose in your hand and tell you, with conviction and feeling, what a really good person you are," Myerson said.

Here's to ATTN:'s designated pup Bogie for keeping us calm, happy, and soft-hearted:

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