Can a Dog Help Improve a Child’s Mental Health?

There has been growing interest in recent years around the potential benefits of having dogs in schools and how they can support children’s mental health and well-being. The presence of a friendly dog can help create a calming environment and provide comfort and companionship for children dealing with anxiety, stress, or other mental health issues. In this article, we explore some of the key ways a dog can potentially help to improve a child’s mental health.

Providing Emotional Support

One of the most commonly cited benefits of having dogs work with children is the emotional support a dog can provide. Dogs are intuitive creatures who can sense when someone is feeling sad, anxious or stressed. Their calm, non-judgemental presence and affection can have profound effects. Stroking a dog releases oxytocin, a hormone linked to bonding and well-being, which can help soothe and relax children and lift their moods. This is especially important for children suffering from trauma, grief or mental health problems like depression and anxiety, who may find solace in the unconditional love of a dog.

Encouraging Communication and Interaction

Interacting with dogs also provides opportunities to improve children’s communication and social skills. Shy or isolated children may feel more confident opening up, expressing themselves and engaging with a dog. Canine assisted learning programmes bring dogs into classrooms to participate in lessons and activities focused on building literacy skills, self-confidence, and teamwork. The fun, interactive nature of working with a dog makes learning feel less daunting. Seeing a dog happily listening and responding to instructions can also motivate reticent children to communicate. These experiences translate into improved confidence and an ability to work with humans, too.

Teaching Responsibility and Empathy

Caring for a dog encourages children to be more responsible, patient and empathetic. Feeding, grooming and training a dog requires discipline and commitment. Having to remember routines and put a dog’s needs first fosters a sense of responsibility. Seeing a dog’s unconditional affection, despite any mistakes or frustrations, teaches forbearance and empathy. Learning to read a dog’s body language also increases awareness and understanding of non-verbal communication. These are invaluable skills which allow children to interact with others more thoughtfully and positively.

Promoting Exercise and Outdoor Play

Dogs motivate children to exercise, play outdoors and connect with nature. Taking dogs for walks or playing games like fetch provides fun opportunities for children to get active and spend less time in front of screens. Exposure to green space and nature has been shown to reduce stress and improve mood and focus. The presence of a dog encourages more outdoor play, exploration, and opportunities to interact with other children and dogs, improving socialisation. More activity and time outdoors is also linked to healthier sleep – something particularly beneficial for children with mental health issues like anxiety or ADHD, which often co-occur with sleep problems.

Reducing Anxiety and Improving Mood

Multiple studies have demonstrated dogs can reduce symptoms of anxiety and improve mood in children with mental health problems. School programmes using therapy dogs like those from The Dog Mentor find students are less anxious, more motivated, and have improved concentration in reading lessons with the dogs present.

Dogs in schools initiatives have also been shown to reduce behavioural problems and create a more positive, comfortable classroom environment. The calming presence of a well-trained dog changes the whole dynamic of a space. For children dealing with stress, trauma or emotional issues, time with a therapy dog provides a safe space to process emotions and build resilience.

The research indicates that thoughtfully introduced and handled dogs can have measurable benefits for children’s mental health and wellbeing. Of course, dogs should never replace professional mental health support, but they can be a wonderful complementary therapy.


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