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Furry friends with benefits

Not only do dogs make great companions, but studies have shown that they also help with our mental health and overall well-being. 

Who rescued who? You’ve seen this innocuous question on car stickers among people who’ve benefited from adding a rescue dog to their lives. It’s clever but has subtext worth unpacking: the implication is someone needed rescuing along with the pet. Someone was struggling or unhappy, and the routine and comfort a dog-in-need brings was the antidote. 

Do dogs benefit our mental health?

Ask any pet lover if pets are beneficial for our physical and mental wellbeing, and you’ll no doubt hear a resounding “yes,” and perhaps even confusion at the question. What is obvious to those who share their lives with furry friends, rescued or otherwise, is a serious research topic to those who need evidence beyond anecdotes – though who doesn’t love heartwarming pet stories?

Bessie was rescued from a shelter in 2022. Photo: Ladybird Animal Sanctuary

Researching the benefits of pets to our overall well-being is a growing opportunity among social scientists. For example, Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog and other books, runs the Canine Cognition Lab at Barnard College in New York City. Stanley Coren, a professor at the University of British Columbia and author of The Intelligence of Dogs, was one of the first in his field. Both study dogs extensively and are popular authors.

Additionally, the American Human Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) was established in 2010 with express purpose to study the positive impacts companion animals have on our lives. HABRI is a non-profit research and education organization founded by the American Pet Products Association, animal medicine company Zoetis, and Petco. Not surprisingly, the past 10 years has produced an explosion of animal/human bond studies.

What has extensive research about the human-animal bond revealed?

Scientific inquiry about the benefits of sharing our lives with dogs reveals many mental health benefits, including reduced anxiety and depression, as well as alleviating contributors to mental health issues such as loneliness and isolation. Medically, playing with a dog releases “feel good” chemicals serotonin and dopamine in the brain.

Simply being in the presence of a dog has benefits, too. The physical comfort of cuddling or petting satisfies a need to connect with another being. Some people even believe pets intuitively know when we need extra attention and comfort. Clearly, the latter is harder to quantify. But what isn’t is the physiological impacts of dogs on people. Generally, dog owners experience healthier heart rates and lower blood pressure and are less likely to be inactive thanks to a dog’s need to get out and explore their world. 

Copper and his adopter. Copper was rescued and adopted in 2016. PhotoL Ladybird Animal Sanctuary
Mental health benefits of dogs for seniors

Speaking of walking, dogs also help alleviate isolation – dog walking sometimes forces interactions with others, often daily. The connection between dogs and loneliness is increasingly being studied, particularly regarding seniors, a demographic most likely to live alone. (Although this is changing as the number of single adults in general increases).

Referring to this research and his own experience, psychologist and dog expert Stanley Coren writes in Psychology Today, “The simple needs of a dog for exercise force a senior to get out of the house – and thus provides the opportunity for social encounters and interactions.” Dogs can be especially beneficial for mobile seniors. But what about kids?

Mental health benefits of dogs for children

“Get a dog,” people used to say when I was growing up, “It will teach your child responsibility and empathy.” While this is somewhat true - studies and anecdotal support indicate strong bonds with dogs and other animals improve a child’s ability to empathize with others - the jury is still out on the responsibility part. Too often children are expected to look after a dog or pet beyond their age capabilities. So, pets for kids, yes. But be prepared to do the lion’s share of the care.

Parents need to be responsible for the dog’s survival needs, but there’s evidence that children who grow up developing a strong emotional bond to their pet reap the benefits of reduced anxiety and increased companionship. Dogs are wonderfully present. Because of the non-judgmental nature of our canine companions, dogs are excellent for helping children develop confidence (think reading therapy dogs) and social skills (free from criticism) – all of which contribute to a mentally balanced adult. 

Pets bring us purpose and a sense of purpose. This is Stevie, a rescue from Texas Chihuahua Rescue Canada. Photo: HCM
Attachment to dogs offers purpose and security

The best part is the human-animal bond has positive impacts on all ages bringing order, continuity, and security to our lives. In short, pets are comforting and give us a sense of purpose. Dogs have needs. They need companionship, socialization, food, and exercise. Dogs require daily care, and this provides their human caregivers with structure, routine, and purpose.

People with strong connections to dogs, especially rescue dogs who might have also experienced trauma or instability, feel needed and even valuable. This last benefit is a significant shield for thwarting suicidal feelings. According to the American Psychological Association and The Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, people are more likely to commit suicide if three factors are combined: a feeling of not belonging; a belief we are a burden to others; and hopelessness.

All these factors are lessened among people who have strong bonds with their dogs – dogs can increase our sense of belonging and provide us with a meaningful commitment and responsibility. Although there’s no definitive evidence that pets reduce suicidal tendencies specifically, you don’t have to go far to find a person, including celebrities publicly, who claims a dog has literally saved their life. 

Canines benefit our mental health

Ultimately, dogs improve our mental health if we develop a close emotional connection with them. The benefits of the human animal bond depend on our willingness to embrace our proverbial best friend. And if you want an appreciative best buddy, look no further than local pet shelters and rescues. Each deserving canine there has its own back story and a whole bunch of mental health support to give and receive. Now, who’s ready to be rescued?

Dog and Pet Rescue Organizations in Hamilton

Hamilton/Burlington SPCA

A staple on Dartnell Road in Hamilton for decades, the Hamilton/Burlington SPCA houses and fosters abandon and surrendered pets. Potential adopters can apply for specific animals available. Adoption fees for dogs and puppies start at $425. The HBSPCA also provides affordable spay/neutering services and veterinary services to vulnerable Hamilton citizens. hbspca.com

Ladybird Animal Sanctuary

Founded and run by three dedicated women, Ladybird Animal Sanctuary is a non-profit organization focused on rescuing animals, including dogs, from shelters where they will likely be euthanized. All animals are fostered by volunteers until permanent homes are found. Pets currently available for adoption application are posted on the organization’s website. Adoption fee for dogs starts at $350. ladybirdanimalsanctuary.com

Ugly Mutts Dog Rescue

Ugly Mutts Dog Rescue is based in Hamilton but has foster homes across southern Ontario. This non-profit, founded by an individual with decades of experience in the rescue field, takes in dogs from shelters, surrenders, and other rescues. The group has dedicated foster families and volunteers but is not a registered charity. Dog adoption is by application. uglymuttsdogrescue.com

Fur Warriors

Fur Warriors is a non-profit registered charity that rescues dogs from Egypt, India, and the Chinese meat trade and helps to solve Hamilton’s stray cat problem. Volunteers foster animals, some rescued with health problems and in need of rehabilitation. Adoption by application. Furwarriors.com

Hammer City Paws Rescue

Established in 2016, the Hammer City Paws Rescue is a registered charity that has placed more than 500 dogs in forever homes. The organization is a dog-only rescue and takes in both surrendered and rescued abandoned dogs, placing them in foster homes until they find permanent homes. hammercitypaws.com

Texas Chihuahua Rescue (Canadian branch)

The Texas Chihuahua Rescue specializes in rescuing small dogs (not only Chihuahuas) and some big from the streets of Texas. The need is staggering, according to the organization’s founders. They transport approximately 30 dogs per month from Texas to the Canadian team based in Hamilton, Guelph, Mississauga, and St. Catharines to be adopted into forever homes. texaschihuahuarescue.org

Bark at the Moon Rescue

This Hamilton-based animal rescue specializes in dogs but rescues cats, too. Bark at the Moon Rescue is run by an extensive team of volunteers and fosters all pets in homes from London to Toronto. Currently, the rescue is at capacity but has adoptable dogs (and cats) available and is looking for more foster homes. Adoptions start at $400 for seniors to $850 for puppies. barkatthemoonrescue.ca

Sherri Telenko is a Hamilton area writer and college instructor with decades of experience writing about lifestyle, travel, and pets. Check out her adventures travelling with her dog at www.dogtrotting.net