How Pooches Can Replace Drugs

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A shelter dog from the Spokane Humane Society enjoys a belly rub at Excelsior Youth Center in Spokane, Wash.
WSU News, Lindsay Ellsworth

Dogs may help to correct certain human mental health disorders by beneficially affecting brain chemistry and function, a new study suggests.

The research shows how interacting with dogs improves mood among teenagers living in residential treatment centers. In this case, the teens were in therapy for drug or alcohol abuse.

"We suggest that the dog interaction activities and/or the dog itself could potentially serve as a non-drug stimulus that may heighten the adolescents' response to naturally occurring stimuli therefore potentially helping to restore the brain's normal process," said Lindsay Ellsworth, who led the research.

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Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate at Washington State University, brought dogs from the Spokane Humane Society to the Excelsior Youth Center, also in Spokane. Teen participants were all males.

During daily recreation time at Excelsior, some of the teens played pool, video games or basketball. Another group interacted with the dogs, by brushing, feeding and playing with them. Before and after the activities, the teens filled an assessment used to scale and study emotion.

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Teens who spent time with dogs experienced heightened joy, improved attentiveness and serenity. Symptoms for participants being treated for ADHD, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder dramatically decreased.

Ellsworth suspects that social companionship with dogs may stimulate the release of opioids, psychoactive chemicals that can relieve pain and promote pleasurable feelings. Certain drugs -- legal and illegal -- bind to opioid receptors in the brain, but the doggy-produced high is natural with no side effects.

Repeated drug use can significantly alter opioid systems, leaving the person feeling lonely or depressed. Social companionship with dogs appears to help alleviate these negative states.

"The relationship between humans and dogs has been in existence for thousands of years," Ellsworth explained. "They actively seek out their owner’s attention and, from the human perception, they provide displays of affection.

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She described how one teen at the center with behavioral problems benefited from the animals.

“During his first couple of encounters with the dogs, he had to learn how to control his behavior in order not to startle the dogs,” she said, adding that "his tone and voice eventually became quieter, his stroke softer, his moves more calculated versus spontaneous, and he appeared to become more aware of himself and how he was acting."

After sessions with the dogs, his interactions with staff improved, becoming "positive and productive."

"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."

Jaak Panksepp, chair of Animal Well-Being Science at WSU, added, “This is wonderful research, and highlights how companion animals can promote therapy with teenagers who have emotional problems.”

Ellsworth suspects that dogs similarly benefit the mental health of adults, children and seniors too. Interaction with cats likely also stimulates opioid release, particularly for people who are already feline fanciers.

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