Do you have a dog? If you do, you're lucky. You probably know that living with a dog is more fun than living without one (at least most of the time). But you may not know that having a dog comes with amazing benefits for your emotional and physical well-being. 

In a recent column on the Psychology Today website, writer and life coach Caren Osten describes the many ways dogs can contribute to our health. Here are just a few of them:

1. A dog can give you a longer lifespan.

A Swedish study of 3.4 million people proves it. In Sweden, dog registration is mandatory, and all trips to hospitals are recorded so it was fairly straightforward for researchers to compare dog owners to the dogless over a period of 12 years. They found that people with dogs were less likely to die of cardiovascular disease as well as other causes, even when considering other factors such as age, body mass, and socioeconomic status. The difference was particularly striking when it came to those living alone. Studies have shown that people who live alone are likelier to die than those living with someone else, but having a dog in the household definitely helps. Those who lived alone with a dog had a 33 percent lower risk of death than those who lived alone without one.

Exactly how does having a canine companion extend people's lives? It may be the simple act of getting out and walking the dog--hunting dog breeds that require more activity seemed to have the greatest life-extending effect. It may be that people with dogs are likelier to visit natural settings, such as a park, beach, or forest, which in itself brings health benefits. Or it may be the well-known health benefits of companionship. Whatever the case, bringing a dog into your life might mean you wind up with more life to enjoy.

2. A dog can help you be more mindful.

The mental and emotional health benefits of mindfulness are well known. But for many of us, staying focused on the present moment is an almost impossible task. Dogs (and other animals) can help, because for the most part, that's all they do. Walking a dog in particular is a great opportunity for mindfulness and the practice of walking meditation. Bringing your attention to what you're doing--focusing on nothing other than your dog, the sights, sounds, and smells all around you, the sensation of your feet lifting and falling back down to earth, all will help bring you into mindfulness. Next time you're out with your dog, give it a try.

3. A dog will cut down on your stress.

There's a reason a growing number of workplaces welcome employees' canine companions. One study showed that over the course of a workday, people who bring their dogs to work experience less stress than those who either have no dogs or have to leave their dogs home.

This is such a powerful effect that it doesn't even have to be your own dog. In one study of 246 college students, those who had the opportunity to pet and cuddle visiting therapy dogs repeated feeling happier and less stressed immediately afterward. And when they answered a questionnaire 10 hours later, they were still experiencing lower stress and fewer negative thoughts than their non-dog cuddling peers.

4. A dog will help you cope when you're upset or traumatized.

Dogs are so good at this they can be trained to help veterans deal with post traumatic stress disorder. But even dogs with no special training are motivated to help out when their owners are in distress. A recent experiment showed that dogs will rush to assist their owners when they hear their owners crying. You can count on dogs to do their best to comfort you when they know you're in distress.

5. If you're suffering from depression, a dog can make you feel better.

A review of multiple studies on the effects of interacting with animals show a range of benefits ranging from strengthened immune systems to improved learning. Intriguingly, it also found that dog owners showed fewer symptoms of depression than people without dogs. 

Depression, addiction, and many other mental and physical issues are linked to loneliness. And the evidence also shows that dogs make people less lonely. Not only for the obvious reason that dogs themselves provide companionship--just stroking a dog will lower your blood pressure, the research found--but also because people with dogs are more socially engaged with other people as well. 

Making room in your home and your heart for a dog is a good thing to do--there are many thousands of them who need good homes. But it turns out that you're doing yourself a huge favor as well. 

Published on: Jul 26, 2018
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