You probably already know that spending time with a dog can make you happy when you’re sad or anxious. It’s no secret that it’s hard to feel depressed when Spot is wildly wagging his tail with joy at just the sight of you. Studies have shown dogs reduce stress levels and blood pressure and help their owners lead longer, happier lives. Now a new study adds to the body of evidence suggesting that dogs may be helpful in the treatment of addiction, ADHD, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders.
Lindsay Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, brought dogs from the Spokane Humane Society to the Excelsior Youth Center, a residential treatment center for teenagers. The teens in Ellsworth’s study were all males, in therapy for drug or alcohol abuse.
Some of the teens played pool, video games or basketball. Another group of teens played with the visiting dogs and brushed and fed them. The teens were asked to complete an assessment used to scale and study emotion before and after the activities.
The teens who spent time with the dogs were happier and experienced improved attentiveness and serenity. Symptoms for teens being treated for ADHD, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder lessened dramatically.
“I was surprised, during the trial period, how calm the boys were around the dogs and at how outbursts and hyperactivity diminished,” Ellsworth said. “It was something you could observe like night and day.”
Ellsworth theorizes that social interaction with dogs may stimulate the release of opioids, psychoactive feel-good chemicals that help relieve pain and promote pleasure. It’s the feeling induced by some drugs, both legal and illegal, who bind to opioid receptors in the brain. The dog-induced high, however, is natural with no side effects and offers another benefit. With repeated drug use, opioid systems can be significantly altered, leaving the drug user lonely or depressed. Spending time with a canine companion seems to help with the loneliness and depression.
“It could be a really novel, cost-effective and beneficial complement to traditional treatments,” said animal behaviorist Ruth Newberry about using dogs to help treat substance abuse. “This could be a win-win innovation for everyone involved, including the dogs.”