With a simple belly rub, a paw shake and a glance into those twinkling eyes, everything from exam anxieties to pounding headaches can fade away. 

It doesn’t take much for therapy dogs to quell our worries and it's no secret their presence makes us feel good. But these effects are less about the pups’ cute demeanour and more about our minds — their influence can work wonders for our mental health.

Therapy dogs fall in the category of “animal-assisted therapy,” which refers to the use of animals to provide comfort and relief to those experiencing any forms of stress, anxiety or loneliness. These sessions typically involve 10 to 15 minutes of enjoyable interactions with a trained dog and their handler, which can take place across different settings like hospitals, nursing homes and Western University’s campus.

“We got so busy at Western that we had to actually start limiting how many times we were coming,” says Jenny Hauser, the co-coordinator for the St. John Ambulance Therapy Dog Program in Middlesex-London. 

Hauser has hosted multiple therapy dog sessions on campus and at residence halls, helping students manage their stress and adjust to university life. 

“We would sometimes get up to 200 to 250 people visiting our dogs in the 90-minute period … and the effect that we had on students was incredible,” she adds.

Being among animals elicits a form of physiological response. A study has shown that cortisol – the body’s primary stress hormone – levels are better controlled in the presence of a dog than with a human during a stressful situation. 

The secret may lie within the complexities of our mind — specifically, the intricate neural networks and a fine blend of chemical signals.

“Petting a dog for as little as five minutes can do some wonderful things physiologically for the body,” explains Hauser. “[Therapy dog sessions] can lower blood pressure … cortisol in the body [and] increase those ‘feel good’ hormones and chemicals in the brain: serotonin and dopamine.”

Both serotonin and dopamine are responsible for mood elevations and pain relief, affecting feelings of happiness and bonding. Studies have found that pleasant interactions with dogs can release the same neurochemicals that are present when we spend time with close friends and relatives.

And these therapeutic effects are not limited to the physical experiences found when stroking a Labrador — therapy dogs are equally capable of working their magic through computer screens, too. 

“It is also shown that looking at videos and pictures online can do the same thing …. Dogs bring joy, and they let you forget about your problems for a little while,” Hauser says.

Virtual visits have taken place at Western since the beginning of the pandemic and they’ve proven to be just as beneficial in raising students’ spirits. 

This phenomenon has to do with humans’ empathetic nature — the ability to relate and understand the feelings of others. 

A specific class of neurons, called “mirror neurons,” reciprocates the emotions of those around you — if someone is smiling, the observer’s brain will simulate similar areas as if they’re smiling themselves. When a golden retriever is happy and energetically wagging their tail, this can cause us to feel just as energetic. 

Hauser is hopeful the program can resume bringing dogs on campus next year, which includes her seven-year-old golden retriever, Mulligan.

“It really was the most rewarding experience for me, as a volunteer, to be able to know that Mulligan and I were making that much of an impact … and a difference in students’ lives,” she says.

 

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