Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet Dog

Dogs can help people of every age build self-esteem, social capital, and compassion. Find out how your dog might be helping you.

Last updated: Dec 18th, 2022

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How dogs improve our quality of life
The impact of dogs on mental health
The role of therapy dogs
The best breeds that foster mental well-being
A word of caution
Mental Health Benefits of Having a Pet Dog

Having a pet is more popular now than it has ever been. Parents give their children a pet to foster a sense of responsibility and respect for animals; couples adopt pets together to strengthen their bond or as a symbolic act of love; and someone without these intimate ties may get a pet out of curiosity, loneliness, or love for the animal itself.

According to the 2021-2022 APPA National Pet Owners Survey, 70% of U.S. households have at least one pet. 69 million households within that percentage have a dog, making it the most popular pet in the U.S. Their popularity isn’t all due to their soft, devoted, loveable natures, but it certainly does help. A pet dog can do more than provide fluffy companionship, too. Read on to learn how having a dog benefits your mental — and even your physical — health.

How dogs improve our quality of life

The intimate bond between dogs and humans goes back tens of thousands of years, when the first human hunter-gatherers domesticated wolves as hunting companions. Over thousands of years of breeding these domesticated wolves became dogs, the furry canine friends we know today. In fact, the oldest archeological evidence of a human-dog bond dates back 32,000 years as a dog's body buried with a mammoth bone in its mouth. This is also the oldest indication that the bond between dog and human was more than just practical; it was also emotional and personal.¹

If you have a dog, you might have noticed the enrichment that pet ownership brings. You might feel happier. Stressful situations might seem less daunting to you. And you likely take comfort in petting and playing with them. But our loyal companions do a lot more for our mental health than we think. Having a pet dog can:

  • Increase our self-esteem and confidence
  • Provide structure to our daily life
  • Offer opportunities to socialize with other people
  • Increase our connection to the outdoors
  • Improve the symptoms of mental health conditions such as depression, stress, and anxiety
  • Help in mitigating the symptoms and impact of conditions such as Autism Spectrum Disorder and Alzheimer’s disease


Researchers have found that simple interactions — such as petting, playing, or even gazing into the eyes of your dog — raises oxytocin levels in both you and your pet. Oxytocin, known as the love hormone, significantly promotes positive behaviors, reduces stress, and strengthens bonds. A regular surge of oxytocin caused by spending time with your dog can increase their attachment, loyalty, and responsiveness to you (and you to them) and bring you a sense of calm and comfort.²

Having a dog as a companion has more benefits than just feeling loved. Rising to the challenge of caring for a dog is no easy feat, especially when much of your time is spent having to feed, walk, bathe, and play with them, and provide any healthcare they may need. Dogs notice these sacrifices you make and convey their gratitude by showing affection, protectiveness, and loyalty, becoming sensitive to your emotions and physical responses with time. Knowing that you provide your dog with safety and love and that your dog needs you and misses you when you’re not around can improve your self-confidence. It can help us realize that we are capable of more than we think.

Similarly, the non-judgemental, generous nature of a dog’s love and devotion towards us can improve our self-esteem, which is particularly important for children. Hormonal changes, sibling rivalries, bullying at school, or a tense home life can be enough to derail a child’s emotional regulation, self-esteem, confidence, and even their social skills. Dogs can provide a child with all the elements of companionship we mentioned earlier while teaching them how to have empathy and compassion toward others. Researchers at Tufts University found that children with pet dogs had better emotional and social skills than those without pets.³ The stress-relieving, confidence-boosting nature of caring for a dog can also make children more resilient in stressful situations or environments.⁴

Older adults feel the benefits of having a dog, too. Research has shown that, due in part to the structure and routine a dog provides, elderly people with dogs experience the following benefits:⁴

  • Less pain and faster recovery after injury or illness
  • Better physical fitness
  • Better and more plentiful social connections
  • Less likely (36%) to report feeling lonely than older people without pets⁵
  • More capable of taking care of their own needs, such as feeding, bathing, and clothing themselves


If you have a dog, its feeding and walking times are probably burned onto your brain. Surprisingly, this has an equal impact on you as it does on your pet. Without a daily routine, we become bored, listless, stressed, and depressed. Structure in our day allows us to keep our minds off stressful and often unproductive thoughts and activities, helping us focus on the tasks we need to complete.

Caring for a dog can automatically provide this kind of structure and routine. Meal times offer opportunities to unwind and enjoy the simple pleasure of eating together, and playtime is another way to bond and unwind. Early morning and evening walks benefit both you and your dog by reducing cortisol levels, improving physical health, and even meeting new people.


If you’ve ever approached a stranger with a cute dog and made a new friend (dog included!), you’re not alone. Simply walking a dog leads to more social interactions than walking solo. Meeting new people is literally a walk in the park when you have a pet dog, and there is a reason why people gravitate to dog owners.

Dog ownership is a form of social capital. Social capital refers to a network of relationships within a community that affects its capacity to function well. Trust, sharing, reciprocity, and even altruism all contribute to social capital. According to one study, it’s the glue holding society together.⁶ Knowing other dog owners and offering to help in caring for their pets when needed increases social capital, as it strengthens relationships between people in a community.

People who walked their dogs reported having more social capital than those who didn’t. This is likely due to their increased exposure to community members, which allows them to get to know others and form connections. Dog walkers tend to also be more aware of their environments, noticing changes in safety or sources of danger along with their dog’s behavior. People who own dogs are generally seen as more trustworthy and approachable than people without dogs, too.⁶

Physical health and activity

In addition to the contributions to our daily lives and communities, caring for a dog benefits our physical health. Researchers have noted the following health trends among dog owners, thanks to their companionship and increased exercise habits:⁷

  • People with dogs tend to live longer than those without dogs.
  • Dog owners have a significantly decreased risk of diabetes.
  • People with dogs are 31% less likely to die of a cardiovascular event, such as a heart attack or stroke.
  • Dog owners are more likely to be in better shape.
  • Dog owners have lower blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels than non-dog owners.⁸

The impact of dogs on mental health

Mental health conditions like depression and anxiety plague many people. Left untreated, they can take a serious toll on our physical health. While the first (and best) step to improving your mental health is to consult with a healthcare professional and seek treatment, it’s also good to know that our furry canine pals can help.

From serious cases, such as PTSD in veterans and depression in prisoners, to the more common cases of stress, loneliness, and anxiety in college students, dogs have risen to the challenge of helping us not only feel better but also manage our emotions and give us hope for a better future.


According to the National Network of Depression Centers (NNDC), depression is the number one cause of disability in the U.S., with $210.5 billion in earnings lost annually. Less than half of people with depression seek treatment, even though treatment for depression has an 80% success rate. There are many reasons why someone would choose not to seek treatment, such as being unwilling to talk to a mental health professional, feeling shame, having financial difficulty, or even feeling hopeless about the potential of ever getting better. One way to easily approach treatment is to introduce a dog.

A study on depression during the COVID-19 pandemic found that dog owners experienced significantly less depression than people without dogs. These dog owners felt they had more social support during the pandemic than non-dog owners, contributing to improved well-being by diminishing feelings of isolation.⁹ As we mentioned before, the oxytocin surges that take place when petting, caring for, or playing with your pet have been shown to reduce sadness and hopelessness. The resilience, confidence, and comfort caring for your dog brings is also helpful in managing depression symptoms.²

U.K. prisons study

Dogs are also beneficial for our health in high-risk environments. A study observing the effects therapy dogs had on depressed, vulnerable, and high-risk inmates in the U.K. yielded results in support of using dogs as both adjunctive therapy (alongside another medical intervention) and as therapy on their own. After indoor sessions with the carefully selected therapy dogs, inmates reported having better coping skills, improved emotional regulation, increased confidence, and feelings of happiness and calm that lasted hours.

Mental health practitioners working with inmates noted marked differences in their demeanor, including being less volatile, more willing to talk to the practitioners themselves, and more willing to cooperate with other treatments, even without the dog present. The inmates also mentioned specifically feeling loved by the dog despite their criminal histories. This love without judgment comes up frequently in studies observing therapy dogs and seems to play a key role in why people respond to dogs so much.¹⁰ We are more open and relaxed when we know our previous actions or mistakes don’t have a bearing on a relationship, which greatly impacts our stress and anxiety.

Over time, the prisoners also reported wanting to be outside with the dog more often. While researchers weren’t sure if it was the dog’s presence encouraging joy when going outside or the nature of being incarcerated in the first place (and wanting the dog to have the freedom to explore), the relationship between canine companionship and the outside world is strong.

Stress and anxiety

Dogs can help manage stress and anxiety, even in the most extreme cases. We’ve long known that service dogs improve the quality of life and mental well-being of veterans with PTSD. Veterans living with PTSD have experienced the following benefits and improvements while working specifically with service dogs (not emotional support dogs):¹¹

  • Less suicidal ideation and behavior
  • Improved anxiety attack and flashback coping
  • Improvements in sleep
  • Decreased anger
  • Decreased symptoms of PTSD
  • Better psychological well-being
  • Better social integration
  • Decreased depression and anxiety
  • Decreased social isolation
  • Fewer nightmares

Stress and anxiety from more commonplace settings such as school and college can also be mitigated by dogs. A study investigating stress, anxiety, and depression in U.K. college students found that interacting with a dog — be it a pet or therapy dog — significantly reduced sadness and anxiety while increasing happiness. The researchers also noted that the dog didn’t even need to be present; simply looking at a photo of a pet dog elicited the same reactions.¹² It’s no wonder, then, that the Internet is so full of pet pictures.

The role of therapy dogs

Therapy dogs are trained to be more tolerant, calm, affectionate, and responsive toward people. They are not owned by the person needing their services but are used in therapy sessions, and the demand for therapy dogs has risen in recent years. Some think their popularity is due to the improvements in the mitigation and management of certain conditions, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Alzheimer’s.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Studies have shown that therapy dogs are especially beneficial in improving children with ASD's quality of life. Because therapy dogs have more training than the average pet dog, they are better at bonding, tolerating, and responding to the individual needs of the people they serve. In one study, children with ASD were more talkative and engaged in a session with a therapy dog. They were also calmer, less aggressive, and friendlier in these sessions.

As we’ve mentioned before, interacting with a dog lowers cortisol levels, eases anxiety, and releases oxytocin. This is especially important for children with ASD who often have sensory issues and have difficulty communicating or expressing themselves. The soft fur and playful nature of a dog calms them, allows them to open up, and promotes feelings of love and friendship, improving the child’s social skills and overall well-being.¹³

Alzheimer's and dementia patients

Therapy dogs can also be trained to assist patients with neurodegenerative conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. In addition to providing companionship, physical touch, and love, they also play a critical role in keeping these patients safe and calm.

Because of their loss of orientation and cognitive function, Alzheimer’s patients can wander away from their homes, fall down and hurt themselves, or become agitated and overwhelmed. This is where a trained Alzheimer’s assistance dog comes to the rescue. It can track down lost or wandering patients, soften the impact of a fall or even prevent it completely by supporting the patient’s balance, and calm the patient’s emotional turmoil by putting their head in the patient’s lap and asserting physical contact.¹⁴

The best breeds that foster mental well-being

While most dogs — if treated and trained well — can improve your mental health, some breeds are better at supporting us than others. Here are the top seven breeds recommended by the Service Dog Registration of America for your mental health.¹⁵

1. Great Danes

These gentle giants are known for more than just their size. They are confident, calm, and require a bit more exercise than smaller dogs, making them perfect for people with athletic tendencies. Great Danes are also more independent than the average dog, which is great if you have an active social life; your dog will be perfectly content at home. But be ready — they are hugely affectionate, and will let you know they’ve missed you!

2. Golden Labradors

The most popular choice for therapy, rescue, and guide dogs, golden labradors (a mix between a golden retriever and a labrador) won’t let you down. Golden labradors are known for their friendly, affectionate personalities and can be a real asset to people with mental health conditions.

3. Yorkshire Terriers

Don’t let their little size fool you. Yorkshire terriers are not the quietest of dogs, but they are certainly among the feistiest. They are fiercely loyal and protective of their owners, often needing to be with them at all times, but this intense attachment to their owners makes them a great choice for people suffering from depression.

4. Poodles

Completely opposite to their snooty and stiff-lipped stereotypes, poodles are incredibly aware and responsive to human emotions. They are ranked among the most intelligent dogs and are also very friendly and easy-going. Due to their emotional intelligence, they are often recommended for people struggling with their mental health.

5. Chihuahuas

Similar in temperament to Yorkshire Terriers, these bite-sized dogs don’t require much. Your constant presence is more than enough, making them perfect for people with depression, stress, and anxiety. Be aware, though, that chihuahuas are also prone to anxiety, so if you’re easily set off by high stress levels, you may find yourself stuck in an anxiety spiral with your chihuahua.

6. Pugs

Pugs make the list due to their positivity, easy-going personality, and friendly natures. They are also easy to train and can adapt quickly to change.

7. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels

Cavalier King Charles (CKC) Spaniels have a long name, matching their long list of positive attributes. These dogs are known for their love of the outdoors, which is great for people wanting to increase their physical activity. CKC Spaniels are very gentle, quiet, and affectionate, which can greatly benefit people with depression and anxiety.

A word of caution

Dogs have been in service to mankind for tens of thousands of years, so it’s no wonder that humans and dogs are still companions. However, not everyone will react the same way to a dog. Differences in culture, health condition, and even animal preference may inhibit the benefits a dog can have. A person who simply does not like dogs or fears them will not benefit from any interaction, no matter what studies suggest.

Additionally, not all dogs provide these benefits. In the case of therapy dogs, it is important to remember that training and careful breed selection is critical for treatment success. Proper care of the dog is also important for the dog’s own well-being, such as ensuring the dog is not overworked or underfed. For dogs and humans to continue benefiting from each other, respect and love must go both ways.


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