Kathleen M. Pike, PhD


Part Belgian Malinois, part Rhodesian Ridgeback, all Rescue. Nike came to us cowering, quivering, and showing behaviors of an abused and abandoned pup. Now more than two years later, she is a loyal spirit who in a nanosecond can go from twitching her hind leg as she chases squirrels in her sleep to unbridled exuberance as she races to the front door to go for a walk.

This week I have been homebound with pneumonia and my daughter has been by my side recovering from mono. In our make-shift infirmary, Nike has brought an energy that can only be described as healing. What is it about these furry, four-legged animals that makes them so good for our health?

1. Dogs reduce stress. About 30 years ago, psychologist Alan Beck at Purdue University and psychiatrist Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania pioneered research demonstrating that when a person pets a friendly and familiar dog, the person’s blood pressure improves, heart rate slows, breathing becomes more regular, and muscle tension relaxes – all signs of reduced stress. Petting a dog releases oxytocin (in both dog and human alike), a hormone associated with love and affection – the very same hormone involved in forging an inseparable bond between mother and infant. And the effects occur after only 5-24 minutes with the dog: faster than many drugs taken for stress.

2. Dogs provide companionship and ease loneliness. They aren’t called “man’s best friend” for nothing. Stories abound describing the unique qualities of canine-human bonds. Particularly for individuals who are homebound and older adults living independently, dogs can provide companionship and promote social engagement. A recent study of 5,000 older adults who have dogs – especially women – suffer less from loneliness. But what if caring for a dog is too much?  Have no fear, Hasbro has developed a robotic Companion Pup designed to give the elderly the benefits of a dog without all of the care that a real, live pooch requires. With built-in sensors that respond to motion and touch, a lifelike coat, authentic sounds, and the capacity to respond to its owner’s voice, Companion Pup is being studied as an intervention to calm agitation and bring comfort to those with advanced dementia.

3. Dogs are good for kids.  From anxiety to autism to trauma, dogs are therapeutic for kids with a range of mental health needs. Families that have dogs as pets have kids who are less likely to have anxiety disordersKids with Autism Spectrum Disorder show reduced levels of anxiety (including lower levels of panic, agoraphobia, separation anxiety and social phobia) when they have a family dog. And dogs have a unique capacity to comfort us at times of trauma. Following the horrific tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, a team of golden retrievers were just what the psychologist ordered for so many children who were unable to speak following the traumatizing events of the day.

4. Dogs with degrees. Some dogs are truly canine Florence Nightingales. Seizure Response Dogs are trained to prevent risk of seizure by detecting the biochemical scent that someone with diabetes gives off as his or her blood glucose begins to change. Mental Health Service Dogs or Psychiatric Service Dogs are task-trained to assist individuals with PTSD, panic disorders, anxiety disorders, major depression, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and much more. And therapy dogs can even improve communication skills for aphasia patients and promote social and emotional wellbeing for individuals undergoing cancer treatment.

5. Dogs promote emotional health and wellbeing in the workplace. With work stress being an increasing contributor to poor mental health and chronic physical problems like hypertension, dog-friendly work spaces have something unique to offer. Many employers, particularly those eager to attract millennials, have recognized that dogs at work can reduce stress, boost morale, encourage mind-clearing walk breaks, and foster positive employee interaction.

When Nike arrived she shivered and cowered. As she drew comfort from our family, we too, drew comfort and found healing. She wasn’t named Nike, the Goddess of Victory, for nothing.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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