Why Your Dog Should Be Your Go-To Stress Buster
You need a break sometimes, and your dog is ready (and willing!) to take one with you.
Your pet wants you to read our newsletter. (Then give them a treat.)
The Wildest’s senior editor, Hilary Weaver, recently said something that really resonated with me. In our casual discussion about dogs before getting down to the business of our meeting (which was also about dogs!), she said to me, “Life is a lot — including two dogs, one deaf and one a young cattle dog — but they are also the reason I am OK half the time.”
That sums up what’s probably true for most of us — if we are hanging on by a thread at any point in this busy world, our dog is that thread (or is at least holding the thread!) and if we are in a good place emotionally, you better believe our dogs are there with us. Hilary reminded me how much we all give to our dogs and how much they give back, specifically when it comes to being the champions of keeping our stress in check.
So much of the stress from daily life can be absorbed and fixed by our best friends, which just naturally happens. There’s a reason so many people consider a day where they don’t tell the world about how much they love their dog to be a day wasted. But even though so much stress relief happens simply because we share our lives with dogs, we can actively maximize that benefit of dog parenthood.
First, I want to be clear, because being misunderstood leads to trolls, which leads to stress, which leads to more criticism. I’m not talking about using dogs. We can make our dogs part of our successful battle against the stresses of the modern world, and add to our dog’s quality of life at the same time. In fact, it’s better for our dogs if we are OK. One of the major lessons I’ve learned as a parent of humans is easily transferable to being a dog parent:I have to take care of me so I can take care of you! So, keep in mind that these strategies about actively planning ways for our dogs to help us minimize our stress benefits them, too.
Reframe from “I have to” to “I get to” walk my dog.
The right perspective is everything, and if you remember what a joy it is to be with your dog, it makes the work of having one easier. So, every time you walk your dog (and we all know we don’t always feel like it every time!) let your inner voice speak this truth: “I get to walk my dog” instead of listening to some downer of a voice saying, “I have to walk my dog now.”
Make the most of even five-minute breaks.
Dogs are so powerful that even a few minutes of connecting with them can make us feel so much better — less stressed and oh-so-much happier. If you can’t be with your dog during the day, you can still get a stress-busting lift, courtesy of your best friend. Watch a video of your dog, and just try not to say “Awwww” too loud and bother any of your co-workers.
Seeing your dog playing, sleeping, dreaming, or looking at you even on video can make you feel better, and the effect may be even more important if it keeps you off social media. If your dog is at daycare or at home with a webcam, tune in for a few minutes to watch them live. You can take a quick break to interact with them through Furbo 360opens in a new tab, which gives you the ability to watch them, talk to them, and deliver treats to them.
If you are one of the lucky ones who is with your dog when you work because you either work from home or because you can bring your dog to workopens in a new tab, there are plenty of five-minute break options that allow your dog to stomp on your stress. Just a quick game of fetch or tug, a short belly rub, snuggles or cuddles of any kind, a brief training session, or showing off a trick your dog knows to anyone willing to watch are all good for your soul and help alleviate stress. If being outside is possible for any of these five-minute breaks, just the natural light and fresh air can be good for countering stress, and so often it’s our dogs who are the motivator for getting outside.
Start and end your day right by having zen time with your dog.
Having something to look forward to makes life better, and dogs are there for it. Just knowing you are about to have some enjoyable time with your dog can make getting out of bed easier for some of us. Of course, for others including those who are true night owls, having to get up so your dog can go outside is torture, so if even your dog can’t tame the horror of facing the morning, that’s OK.
Not every benefit of having a dog applies to all of us. Having a dog to come home to and looking forward to time together after work is another aspect of pet parenting that may not apply universally. If it does apply to you, lean into the joy of looking forward to coming home to your dog, and enjoy that reunion. If it doesn’t, and you feel pressured to care for your dog right after work rather than being able to go out with friends or do something else recreational, it’s okay. Dogs require work from all of us — the benefits outweigh the costs, but I would never downplay the costs.
Time your walks optimally for you.
Dog walking is a must for most dogs, so it only makes sense to walk your dogs at the time that’s best for you. Depending on your work schedule, the weather, how your day is going, or what brings you the most joy, that can vary. Perhaps the best time to walk your dog today is after a stressful meeting. Or the best time might be at the end of the day when you have no more obligations, and you can really relax and enjoy the moment.
You could also benefit from being outside with your dog as the sun is setting. Health professionals know that just having a routine can help us manage stressopens in a new tab more effectively, so walking on a regular schedule at a predictable time of day can reduce our stress, as long as trying to stick to a routine against your nature doesn’t add stress. It’s easier to stick to a walking routine if there is a set of warm puppy dog eyes looking at us hopefully conveying the message that it is time for the regularly scheduled walk.
Harness the power of training to reduce stress in your life.
The many benefits of training aren’t usually viewed in the context of stress reduction, but they certainly should be. Training done with positive reinforcement is fun and bonding for you and your dog, and can therefore be an antidote to the stress of modern life.
Additionally, the success of learning new skills enhances self-esteem, and having tricks or other feats to perform adds to confidence, both of which can counteract stress. And, having a better-trained dog makes so many aspects of life less stressful, so train skills that make your life more relaxing.
For example, if you have trained your dog to greet visitors at the dooropens in a new tab politely, to walk nicely on a leashopens in a new tab, to step on the scale at the vet’s office, to enter their crateopens in a new tab willingly, to stay, to come when called, and to show off a trick or two to break the ice in social settings, life is generally better all around.
Dogs naturally offer direct physical benefits with stress-busting powers, so act accordingly.
Just by being themselves, our dogs provide us with health and mood-enhancersopens in a new tab. Petting them, playing with them, and even just hanging out with them results in a variety of stress-reducing benefits. Petting dogs lowers people’s blood pressureopens in a new tab and reduces their levels of cortisolopens in a new tab, which is the hormone released when we are stressed. Playing with dogs elevates our dopamine and serotonin levels, which helps us relax and feel peacefully calm. We can capitalize on these stress-busting opportunities by interacting with our dogs, doing so regularly and when we are at risk of feeling stress or already experiencing it.
More exercise is the most famous stress buster dogs offer.
It’s hardly news that dog parents tend to exercise more than their friends and relatives who don’t have dogs, or that exercise helps relieve stress. Not only does exercising give us a break from our daily to do lists, it changes our brain chemistry in a way that improves our emotional well-beingopens in a new tab. These happy brain chemicals — or endocannabinoids, if you prefer a more technical term — and the changes to our bodies and brain during exercise have huge impacts on many aspects of our lives. Endocannabinoids lower stress, enhance mood, increase pain tolerance, and improve our sleep. That last one — sleep — is huge because better sleep improves our ability to handle stress, so we experience less of it.
So, the question is not about whether the exercise your dog prompts you to get is a stress buster (because, yes, yes it is!) but which type of exercise suits you and your dog best. All kinds of exercise are beneficial, so it really depends on what you and your dog enjoy doing together. Running is a great optionopens in a new tab for many people and dogs, but if that idea is unappealing, choose another way to be active. You can take your dog bikingopens in a new tab, either in a basket as a rider or as a runner alongside you, depending on your dog. Tons of dogs love swimmingopens in a new tab, and it’s great exercise for both of you — fun, relaxing, refreshing, and without strain on the joints (that’s especially helpful for many older dogs). Besides these classic sports of the standard triathlon, you could try skijoringopens in a new tab, which is essentially cross country skiing while your dog pulls you, or soft hikingopens in a new tab, which is basically just a chill walk with slight elevation and a pretty view.
Add stress busting to the long list of dogs’ superpowers.
Taking care of and raising dogs is a lot of work, but it’s a labor of love and also beneficial to people. With the many proactive, specific ways our dogs can help us relieve our stress, the simple fact of the matter is that dogs deserve the accolade of “world’s best stress-busters.” Yet, it’s a feat they accomplish in part just by being with us and being their sweet selves, decreasing your stress just by existing. It’s that simple and that beautiful.
Karen B. London, PhD, CAAB, CPDT-KA
Karen B. London, Ph.D., is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression, and has also trained other animals including cats, birds, snakes, and insects. She writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Lifeopens in a new tab.
- opens in a new tab
Does Your Dog Understand When You FaceTime Them?
It’s a nice thought.
- opens in a new tab
Who Has More Separation Anxiety — You or Your Dog?
It was a trick question. A study shows that the pandemic has made us all codependent.
- opens in a new tab
Soft Hiking Is Hardcore Good For You and Your Dog
Sorry, Miley. It’s not always about the climb.
- opens in a new tab
Running With Your Dog Is Possible — It Doesn’t Just Happen in Photoshoots
You — yes you! — can be one of those fun people who runs with your dog. Just be smart about it.
- opens in a new tab
How to Take Silly Little Mental Health Hikes With Your Dog
It’s good for you both — promise.
- opens in a new tab
5 Science-Backed Ways to De-Stress Outdoors (Your Pet Is Invited)
The author of Return to Nature on the mental health benefits of getting out into various natural landscapes with your pup.