Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I really wanted a dog. My life was also the opposite of dog friendly. I worked long days, often away from my home early morning until late night. I was always busy and overwhelmed with all the things to do. I didn’t have the time or capacity to devote to a dog, or to well train and bond with a dog in the way we both would deserve.

Then seemingly overnight, everything changed. Suddenly I was home all of the time. Every routine that had prevented me from slowing down had shifted, and the slowdown was forced. With this, I took off in the middle of a pandemic with a best friend and a cooler of snacks on a two day road trip to bring home my new puppy, Ollie.

Most of us can relate to having a beloved pet that has been a significant part of our lives. We love them, and the coolest thing is, they love us back unconditionally without regard to our failings. The science backs up the power of this connection, particularly regarding dogs. Pets boost our brain chemicals. Our happiness hormones lift when we see their faces.

In a study published in Psychology Today, interactions between humans and dogs have been shown to release the powerful “feel good” brain chemical oxytocin. Oxytocin causes a cascade of physiological changes. It can slow heart rate and breathing and inhibit the production of stress hormones, creating a profound sense of calm, comfort, and focus. And these conditions are critical to forming close social relationships — whether with an infant, a mate, or unrelated individuals — including those belonging to different species. Pets help normalize our brain chemistry. Petting a dog can cause a spike in one’s serotonin level, the neurotransmitter that most antidepressants attempt to increase. At the same time, pets lower our cortisol levels, which are often linked with stress and weight gain. Pets are especially helpful to owners’ mental health during times of crisis. A Japanese study after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami found that owning a pet led to lower instances of PTSD, four and a half years later.

Pet-assisted therapies help struggling children, people with autism, and those suffering from mental illness and drug addiction. Research shows that childhood pet ownership has major connections to emotional, behavioral, cognitive, educational and social development outcomes. In particular, pets help kids with self-esteem, loneliness, perspective-taking abilities and social interaction.

Since the pandemic began, there’s been an unprecedented increase in animal adoptions and purchases, as people seek animal companionship to tackle difficult feelings of isolation and anxiety. Pets require us to take care of someone, and we tend to become strong and feel more capable when we help others and assume responsibility. Pets remind us of purpose. We speak often of mindfulness in therapy. The foundations of mindfulness include attention, intention, compassion, and awareness. All of those things are things that animals bring to the table. People have to learn it, yet animals do this innately.

Animals and humans seem to have a naturally healing relationship. Dogs and any other beloved pet can be attachment figures in our lives, helping us to build a sense of safety and security in the world. It can be a very powerful relationship that is just as strong, and sometimes stronger, than human connections. Animals support secure attachment, and thus mitigate challenges with nervous-system regulation caused by attachment insecurity. People may develop connections to animals that provide emotional support, a sense of protection, and/or attachment and grounding during periods of heightened arousal.

The benefits of pets far exceeds psychological, as pets can have tremendous impacts on our physical health as well. According to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), living with pets can reduce blood pressure and lower cholesterol levels. Several studies in both the U.S. and China showed a fascinating correlation between owning pets and a lower risk of dying from heart disease, heart attack and stroke.
During the pandemic, having a dog has been a lifesaver. She gets me out of the house several times a day, times that I normally would be at my computer, mindlessly snacking, or scrolling news and social media. She is smart and silly and makes me laugh out loud. She has kept me focused on something other than all the chaos in the world, in a time where it’s easy to become consumed by it.

In every crisis we are given an opportunity to evaluate our habitual tendencies, and as I consider that I think about my pandemic puppy that I didn’t previously have the time for. It took a virus to slow me down, and allow more space for stillness and gratitude. I think I’ve changed this year in ways that I hope will stay with me. I’ve discovered that as much as Ollie may have needed me, I needed her more. She has helped me learn to stop and appreciate the moment that I’m in, and that has left me better than I was before.

Rebecca Bowers, MA, LMFT
Individual and Family Therapist
Lakes Center for Youth and Families