It’s no surprise that dogs are immensely popular as emotional support animals – dogs are loving creatures and provide a sense of security for their human companions.
Even the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud used his dog, Jofi, in his therapy sessions. But why? What is it that makes dogs so great at soothing anxiety?
One answer is hormones. Many studies have shown that the hormone oxytocin may be the reason people experiencing anxiety feel better after petting a cute, sweet puppy. A 2017 study published in Frontiers in Psychology determined that oxytocin (AKA “the feel-good hormone”) spikes in both dogs and people during human/canine interactions. This hormone encourages social bonding and is the same hormone spike that new mothers experience after childbirth. So it’s no surprise that many owners consider pets part of the family.
Despite the role that oxytocin may play in humans bonding with dogs, there are other reasons why dogs can reduce an individual’s anxiety.
Physical contact, for example, feels good physically and can help reduce anxiety. This isn’t just a benefit that humans experience – animals, too, can experience reduced stress levels as a result of physical contact. Have you ever heard of Thundershirts for dogs? These are extremely helpful when a dog is scared during noisy times such as heavy rain or fireworks on holidays. The physical contact between the heavy “shirt” and a dog’s coat helps calm the canine down and reduces stress and anxiety.
The same goes for humans – weighted clothing can help alleviate anxiety, and so can a nice hug too. For this reason, many therapy dogs are taught how to place their weight on their owner’s lap or are trained to lean against their humans, providing beneficial physical contact that lowers anxiety.
Anyone with even mild anxiety can benefit from a dog because dogs love us unconditionally. No matter what humiliating faux pas we commit, our dog still adores us. For those who need scientific evidence, General Electric Company teamed up with Mic to analyze brain scans of dogs, and what they found is not surprising. When dogs took in the scent of their owners, the “reward center” in their brains was visibly activated. That means dogs are naturally wired to love us!
Many people with anxiety appreciate a sense of security, not only in a physical sense but also in an emotional one. A 2017 study published in Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews reported that dogs are actually able to judge people based on their behavior towards us. In other words, if a dog notices someone exhibiting negative behavior towards his or her owner, he or she will evaluate the situation and take a disliking to the person. Dogs can be quite intuitive!
Traits of an Anxiety-Soothing Canine
Despite popular belief, it doesn’t take an intelligent dog to soothe a person’s anxiety.
Even a dog that might be considered not the smartest pooch in the pack can have what it takes to be a therapy dog – loyalty and affection and two key traits in a good anxiety-reducing pooch, and many dogs have those qualities in abundance!
Hyper dogs don’t tend to be the best choice; instead, calm and even-keeled dogs are more likely to help. However, this doesn’t mean the dog needs to be shy – dogs who are friendly and outgoing can always bring a bit of energy into the room!
The best dogs for anxiety are those who can read the “signs” their owner is giving off (body language, tone of voice, etc.) and can subsequently respond with empathy and love. Many dogs can learn this behavior easily. In fact, a study has shown that dogs are able to read a human’s body language even better than chimps. This is why the best therapy dogs tend to be breeds that have a history of working alongside humans – these dogs tend to be well equipped to interpret the subtle signals humans give off.
Popular Dog Breeds for Reducing Anxiety
Every dog is an individual, regardless what breed he or she is. However, some breeds tend to be more likely to display the key qualities we mentioned above than others. Popular therapy dog breeds include:
1. Golden Retrievers
Golden Retrievers aren’t just a pretty face – they also make great therapy dogs. They tend to have a perpetual smile on their faces, which makes their humans smile as well.
Though they can be high-energy at times, they are also obedient and know when to calm down and enter “work mode”.
2. Labrador Retrievers
“Labs” may be bigger dogs, but many owners testify to owning large Labs than tend to think they’re lap dogs. Labradors are the most popular dog breed in the United States (and have held that title for several years). They’re often brought in to cheer people up at hospitals, mental institutions, and other places where folks may feel down.
3. Standard Poodles
Not only do Standard Poodles work to reduce anxiety, they’re also a great breed for owners with allergies. These elegant, sophisticated dogs are also quite intuitive and can pick up cues from owners easily.
Also known by their formal name, Yorkshire Terriers, these dogs can be of great help to people with anxiety. In fact, the American Kennel Club published a story about Winnie the Yorkie who visits sick kids at Brenner Children’s Hospital. Despite their small size, Yorkies have big hearts and vibrant spirits.
Most pugs love to be petted and they give the love right back. They have a tendency to be happy wherever they are as long as their owner is there with them.
Pugs typically do not require a lot of maintenance and tend to be on the calmer side.
6. Great Danes
Great Danes are big dogs with big hearts to match. These dogs usually have the gentle temperament needed to be therapy dogs and they are also able to exhibit empathy towards humans with anxiety.
7. Great Pyrenees
A “Pyr” can also be a great therapy dog. Despite being much bigger than most dogs, this breed is extremely gentle and affectionate, soothing stressed out humans with their kind temperment. The National Pyr Rescue association also points out that these dogs are extremely smart and intuitive.
How to Find An Anxiety-Reducing Dog
Rescues and breeders all have dogs that can act as therapy dogs for people with anxiety. Despite our list above, it’s worth noting that mixed breed canines can also serve as great therapy dogs – although it often can be fun to discover your mutt’s dog DNA background and see if they have a bit of shepherd or retriever in them!
Of course, your specific needs must be identified before getting a dog. Many people prefer puppies; however, puppies require a lot of maintenance and training, so if you don’t want to commit to the enormous work and effort involved in rearing a puppy, an older dog may be a better option.
Dogs of all ages have a lot of love to give and enjoy receiving love in return. Just remember that all dogs need some walking (some a lot) and shouldn’t be left alone for too long.
The breeds outlined above are great for therapy dogs, but really any dog breed that fits your lifestyle and needs can be a huge stress-reducer due to the love and companionship all dogs provide by being in our homes!
About The Author: Meg Marrs is the Founder of Dog Breed Identifier, a website reviewing and comparing various dog DNA tests to help owners discover the hidden heritage of their four-legged pals!