Brief Dog Therapy Sessions Can Improve Mental Health

Forget your weekly therapy appointment. What about your weekly therapy dog appointment?

A group of psychologists in the UK have found that even spending a short period of time with a therapy dog can be good for your mental health.

In their study, they recruited 132 college students to participate in a “dog-assisted intervention,” which involved being with a therapy dog for 20 minutes. Some of the students met with only the dog, and some met with the dog as well as the dog’s handler. The least fortunate participants met with only the handler but not the dog.

The researchers found that students who met with either the dog or the dog and the handler subsequently experienced higher mood, lower anxiety, and a greater sense of well-being. So it turns out that a dog can make an effective therapist.

In fact, the results suggested that the dog intervention was most successful when the handler wasn’t present. While the intervention worked both when the handler was and wasn’t there, participants experienced significantly more improvement in mood when the handler wasn’t present.

There are previous studies suggesting that therapy dogs can make people feel better. One study even found that therapy dogs can decrease the pain people experience after joint surgery.

And research has established pretty solidly that pet ownership correlates with better mental health. For example, a 2011 study found that pet owners scored higher on several measures of well-being, including self-esteem and exercise, and that having pets makes people more resilient to social rejection.

What this new study shows, though, is that even spending a little time with a dog can provide a mental health boost. “Dog-assisted interventions” like the one in the study could offer some of the mental health benefits of pet ownership without the major investment of getting a pet.

In the meantime, while many people are starting to wonder whether they’ll be replaced be automated robots and artificial intelligence in their jobs, psychotherapists might have to ask … whether they’ll be replaced by canines.

Image: Flickr/Sasha the Okay Photographer