How our dogs can help with stress


We all know that dogs are hugely supportive animals, and many of us credit our mental and physical wellbeing to our beloved pooches. This year has been uniquely stressful, which has made the loyalty of our beloved dogs even more valuable.

Recently, I caught up with Sean Laidlaw to chat about his personal experience. Sean first met his dog Barrie whilst working within bomb disposal in Syria; after finding a tiny puppy in a collapsed building, he simply couldn’t leave her behind. After a long journey, they were reunited in the UK.

During our chat, I asked Sean how finding Barrie changed army life for him in Syria: “from the very first day we met she has been helping me, as well as those around us, just by being herself. Dogs seem to be able to sense when we need them the most; when I was feeling down, Barrie would just come over with a toy in her mouth and make me play!” Does Barrie still help you in this way now you’re back home? “Absolutely, as annoying it sometimes is,” Sean chuckles. “Even after spending just 10-15 minutes playing with her, I feel so much better and surprisingly I feel a lot more energised.”

Research has also documented these effects. A study by Ward‐Griffin et al. (2018) found that therapy dog sessions caused immediate reductions in exam stress. The university students who took part not only felt more relaxed, they also reported an increase in happiness and energy levels. As the title of the study suggests, “Petting away pre‐exam stress” really does work!

Sean, who struggles with PTSD, also credits the amazing Barrie with his recovery. “When I am having a bad day, a thousand thoughts racing through my head, I talk to Barrie; your dog will always listen and never judge. Sometimes that’s all we need.” Does it matter that Barrie hasn’t been trained as a therapy dog? “We’ve all heard about highly trained dogs helping people with PTSD, anxiety attacks and stress,” Sean explains, “but people often wonder, ‘can my dog do this?’ To that I say, ‘if mine can I don’t see why yours couldn’t as well.’”

Sean and Barrie faced huge stressors whilst serving in Syria, but civilian life also presents its own unique challenges; “people often ask me how I deal with stress,” shares Sean. “Whether there are challenges at work, life is getting a bit too much, or I am just feeling a bit under the weather, my first answer is always ‘my dog!’”

Dogs are clearly great at improving our mental health, but they also provide huge benefits for our physical wellbeing. Aside from the obvious advantages of exercise, Allen et al. (2001) found simply spending time with your dog to be more effective at reducing high blood pressure than some medication.

Given the recent announcement in the UK, my conversation with Sean soon turned to the pandemic. “With the lockdown just round the corner, many of us are worrying about how our day to day life and mental health will be affected. As a gym owner, I know many of my clients are wondering what they can do to stay healthy and sane. My top tip: take your dog for a walk!” As Sean suggests, there are also ways that you can help others whilst out and about; “maybe ask your elder neighbours if they need help walking their pets.”

Keeping the health of your dog in mind is also vital to make sure you both enjoy your walks together. “If your dog is older or hasn’t been very active recently, make sure you keep walks shorter or add more breaks,” suggests Sean. “You could also add a bit of obedience training to your walks; getting your dog’s brain working is just as important as getting their legs moving! You could try using some dog agility equipment, teaching your dog not to pull you around, or even playing hide and seek.”

As Sean’s experience attests, whatever struggles we face, our dogs are there for us; they are loyal companions, faithful supporters, and an encouragement to get out and about! So, this National Stress Awareness Day, we are saying a huge thank you to our wonderful dogs for staying by our sides and making things that little bit easier.

Author: Helena Young, DogFest Team


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