Therapy dogs, especially those providing emotional support, have become increasingly popular over the last decade. In the United States alone, there are more than half a million registered therapy and service canines. These admirable helpers serve many purposes; they can assist the elderly in overcoming feelings of depression and loneliness, they help PTSD sufferers to relieve anxiety and increase calmness, and can even encourage victims of child abuse to feel love and purpose. But it doesn’t stop there; the extraordinary bond humans share with dogs can provide positive, life changing benefits for almost anyone. This includes troubled teens; a unique demographic known to suffer from negative feelings such as depression, angst, loneliness, and more.
A recent review of twenty two different studies found that children who grew up with pets were more likely to have higher self esteem, better social skills, and even better cognitive development. Children who grew up with pets were also regarded as more responsible, and more proficient at solving problems that require quick thinking.
For teenagers, the benefits of having a relationship with a dog can have a monumental positive impact. Much of the anxiety and negative feelings that come with being a typical teenager come from feelings of being judged; judgement from peers, teachers, and even family members can weigh heavily on teens who are still trying to figure out who they are. Dogs, however, don’t judge; they provide unconditional love no matter who you are, what you look like, and what your hobbies are . Feeling all-encompassing, judgement-free affection from a beloved pet can help teens to boost their confidence and feel better about themselves.
“Animals are such agreeable friends—they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.” –George Eliot
Dogs are also a tremendous source for awkwardness-free intimacy. As a teenager, you may not want to hug your parents often, or speak freely with them about feelings of self doubt. That’s where dogs come in; sharing affection without the vulnerability, awkwardness, or embarrassment. Dogs provide boundless, silent physical contact. This type of contact has a cascading positive effect on the human body; our brains produce more of the feel good hormones like dopamine and oxytocin, and we produce less anxiety-causing hormones, like cortisol. These positive physical changes also benefit the dog, too, as they receive a great deal of gratification spending quality bonding time with their humans.
“Dogs are our link to paradise. They don’t know evil or jealousy or discontent.” –Milan Kundera
When it comes to human emotions, dogs are extremely intuitive, which is part of what makes them support companions like no other. If their human is feeling down, most dogs are instinctively drawn to them to offer comfort and reassurance. For sensitive teenagers, dogs can provide the emotional support they need.
For troubled teens, dogs can also teach and reinforce essential life skills, like responsibility. Dogs need proper, regular care. From feeding and grooming, to walking and training, these responsibilities require patience, commitment, and consistency. For many teens, as their bond with their dog develops and strengthens, so does their desire to take good care of their pet. This can decrease the time teens spend doing other, less productive things. However, for teens with a history of violent or aggressive tendencies, introducing an animal into the home may not be advised.
If you’re considering getting a dog as a companion for your teen, make sure to talk to them about it first. Some may not be interested in getting a pet – and springing this new responsibility on them may add to their anxiety or feelings of helplessness. For teens who are receptive to welcoming the challenge of a new dog, it is important to select a breed that suits their lifestyle.
The intrinsic relationship between human and dog is unlike anything else on this planet. It not only changes your mood, it changes your life.