By Dr. Becker
If you’re a dog owner, you already know your pet has a positive effect on your health. And you’re probably also aware a growing body of research confirms that canine companions are, indeed, good for body and mind.
Now, a new study suggests dogs may actually be able to repair certain mental health issues thanks to their positive influence on human brain chemistry and function.
Lindsay Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate in animal sciences at Washington State University, conducted the study, which involved bringing shelter dogs together with teenage boys living in a residential treatment center for drug and alcohol abuse.
On Friday afternoons, four canine residents of the Spokane Humane Society were taken to the Excelsior Youth Center for the meet-up. The teen boys at the center eagerly anticipated the arrival of the dogs, and were encouraged to help brush, feed and play with them.
One positive outcome of these sessions for the teenagers was increased feelings of joyfulness. According to Ellsworth, "Some of the words the boys used to describe their moods after working with the dogs were ‘excited,’ ‘energetic’ ‘and happy.’”
Interacting with Shelter Dogs Improved Joyfulness, Attentiveness and Serenity in Teens Being Treated for Substance Abuse and Emotional Disorders
Ellsworth’s study is the first to factually demonstrate an association between interacting with dogs and improved mood among teens living in residential treatment centers.
On Friday afternoons during daily recreation time at the treatment center, Ellsworth gathered two groups of four teenage boys. One group played basketball, pool or video games; the other group spent about an hour interacting with the shelter dogs.
Before and after their assigned activities, the eight boys self-reported their mood and emotions using a common psychological tool called the PANAS-X. Scores indicated the teens that spent their time with the dogs showed increases in joviality, attentiveness and serenity. Overall sadness decreased.
Also, many of the boys who participated in Ellsworth’s study were also being treated for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Ellsworth said, "I was surprised, during the trial period, how calm the boys were around the dogs and at how outbursts and hyperactivity diminished. It was something you could observe like night and day.”
When asked what they liked most about interacting with the shelter dogs, the teens said they liked giving treats and showing love to the dogs. They also reported that spending time with the dogs helped distract them from thinking about negative things.
According to Robert Faltermeyer, executive director of Excelsior:
“It’s an opportunity for kids in a real chaotic life, making unhealthy choices, to focus in on a specific task with an animal. It empowers them to make positive changes even on the simplest scale of correcting the animal’s behavior.”
Faltermeyer believes exposure to the dogs helps the teens build confidence in their ability to change their own lives.
Dogs Are Natural Stimuli That Help Normalize Brain Chemistry
According to Ellsworth, the National Institute on Drug Abuse is seeking evidence-based behavioral interventions for people struggling with addiction. Recovering drug and alcohol abusers tend to have a flat affect. Routine daily activities provide little in the way of motivation or stimulation.
Ellsworth’s theory is that dopamine is released in the teens’ brains as they await the arrival of the dogs at the treatment center each week. She believes interacting with the dogs socially may also trigger release of nature’s feel-good hormones. According to Ellsworth, “Using natural stimuli like dogs could help restore the normal function of these critical chemical messengers after the brain's chemistry has been altered through drug use.”
Chronic drug use can drastically alter opioid systems, leaving the user feeling lonely and depressed. Social companionship with dogs appears to mitigate those negative emotions.
Ruth Newberry, an animal behaviorist and Ellsworth’s doctoral advisor at WSU, agrees. "It could be a really novel, cost-effective and beneficial complement to traditional treatments,” she said.
Use of Shelter Dogs in Residential Drug and Alcohol Treatment Programs Is a Win-Win
Ellsworth describes how one Excelsior teen benefitted from his time with the shelter dogs:
“During his first couple of encounters with the dogs, he had to learn how to control his behavior in order not to startle the dogs. His tone and voice eventually became quieter, his stroke softer, his moves more calculated versus spontaneous, and he appeared to become more aware of himself and how he was acting."
After spending time with the dogs, the boy’s interactions with staff improved as well.
Because so many of the shelter dogs who worked with the teens at Excelsior were adopted over the course of the study, Ellsworth wasn’t able to quantify the impact on the dogs. However, there is plenty of existing research that indicates shelter dogs almost without exception benefit from opportunities to spend more time with humans.
This summer Ellsworth plans to increase the number of visits to Excelsior to twice a week. She wants to learn more about how dogs impact the teens’ involvement in group therapy and their level of cooperation in structured activities. Ellsworth hypothesizes that the better the teenagers are at engaging in structured programs at the center, the more beneficial their treatment programs will be.