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9 Different Types of Self-Care That Dogs Provide to Help You Take Care of Yourself

Do you practice self-care? If you own a dog, you may be practicing it without even knowing. Self-care involves taking action to improve or maintain your mental, physical and emotional health (particularly during times of stress). It includes things like getting adequate sleep, working out, taking care of your body and beyond. A lot of research has shown that owning a dog provides physical and mental health benefits - from lifting our moods to making us move, from reducing stress to improving heart health and so much more. Here are nine different types of self-care your dog provides to help you take care of yourself.

1. They boost our mood and self-esteem.

Studies have shown that pets help lift our moods and self-esteem. This is particularly true for those experiencing loneliness or illness, but also occurs for those not feeling isolated. In fact, research shows that stroking a dog and gazing into their eyes releases the "feel good" hormones oxytocin and dopamine in both people and dogs. And not only does petting or cuddling with your pup improve your mood, but research has shown that just thinking about your pets does too. In addition, dogs force us establish a routine, which is helpful for those suffering from depression. According to a survey by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, 74% of those surveyed reported mental health improvements from pet ownership and 75% reported improvements of a friend’s or family member’s mental health from pet ownership.

2. They reduce stress.

Studies have also shown that pets have positive and calming effects on our stress levels. Simply owning a dog can lower stress, while petting a dog can lower blood pressure and decrease production of cortisol (the stress hormone). Research has specifically shown that, when stressed, dog owners experience fewer spikes in heart rate and blood pressure, as well as a quicker return to normal levels for both. These help minimize the effects of stress on the body.  Plus, having a routine (as dogs need one) has been shown to make a stressful day less so.

3. They encourage us to get active.

One of the biggest benefits of owning a dog is that they require physical exercise, which means you'll get some too. Research has shown that dog ownership tends to increase a person's overall activity levels and physical fitness. Even lazy or low-maintenance dogs need to go to the bathroom and, while those daily trips may be short, they still provide some exercise. Furthermore, most dogs have energy they need to expend, whether through regular walks or playtime. Because of this, dogs prompt their owners to get moving, go outside and play with them.

4. They improve our sleep.

Research has shown that letting your dog sleep in bed with you has benefits, such as improved sleep. You may think sharing your bed with a dog would diminish sleep quality, but the opposite is actually true - it can lead to more efficient sleep. This is measured by something called "sleep efficiency score," which determines how much time you actually spend sleeping when in bed. Owners who slept with their dogs scored an 81 while their canine companions scored an 85 (out of 100). Beyond this, sleeping in bed with your dog can help you keep a better nighttime routine too.

Also, as aforementioned, dogs help release oxytocin from our brains and that has positive effects on sleep. In particular, the hormone promotes theta brainwaves, which occur during the REM stage of sleep. In other words, sharing a bed with your dog can lead to a deep and rejuvenating sleep. Furthermore, dogs give us a sense of security and reducing anxiety, hyperarousal and hypervigilance. Studies have also shown that sharing a bed with your dog can decrease the occurrence of bad dreams.

5. They encourage us to make healthier choices.

Physical exercise is just one aspect of living a healthy life and dog owners tend to make healthier choices beyond that. For example, research has shown that people with dogs stick to a better diet and recorded ideal blood sugar levels because of that. Studies have even demonstrated that having a dog is linked to lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels. In addition, because dogs require a routine, owners tend to keep a healthier schedule. Plus, they prioritize their dog's health, which can make them more aware and attentive to their own health. 

6. They provide companionship and emotional support.

Loneliness and isolation are two contributors to feeling down, depressed and alone. Companionship from dogs helps combat these feelings, especially when having a difficult time socializing with people. Dogs are pack animals, so they naturally and instinctively want to spend time with you. They will even follow you into the bathroom, so you'll never really be alone with a dog. Studies have shown that spending time with your dog can have similar effects and benefits as hanging out with your friends or family. Interacting with a dog raises levels of oxytocin and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters that promote positive emotions and bonding. Pet owners have even reported that they feel their pets provide as much emotional support as their family members.

7. They make us more social.

Not only do dogs provide companionship themselves, but they bring about an opportunity for socialization and community. This can can also help combat feelings of loneliness, isolation and the related effects. At the very least, dogs need to go out to the bathroom, which means you'll be outside at least a few times a day. It gives you a higher likelihood of interacting with people (and maybe making friends). Because dogs are such social beings, they may want to meet other people or dogs. Research supports this, showing that dogs help their owners socialize, make friends, view strangers more positively and reduce feelings of social isolation. The studies showed these benefits for pet owners with all different personality types, but they were stronger for people who already had deeper human relationships.

8. They can make work more enjoyable.

Studies have actually shown that pets make work more enjoyable by relieving workplace stress. This is particularly because dogs help increase our oxytocin levels and decrease cortisol levels. One study by the American Pet Products Manufacturers showed that people in pet-friendly offices were more willing to work longer hours and take fewer days off. Having pets around while working from home can also have similar effects, which is fortunate given many companies are shifting to this style of work.

9. They help lower blood pressure.

Several studies have demonstrated that people who own dogs tend to have lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. This is in part because of the aforementioned calming effect dogs have on their humans, reduced cortisol levels, and increased physical activity and fitness levels. Research has also shown that a person's blood pressure decreases when petting or cuddling with a dog. Lower blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels are all helpful for heart health. This is especially good news for pet owners in the U.S., given that cardiovascular disease is the nation's leading cause of death. The American Heart Association found a connection between owning a pet and a healthy heart, with decreased systemic hypertension and increased activity.  

Ways To Practice Self-Care With Your Dog

Now that we know what makes owning a dog such an excellent form of self-care, we can put the science to practice. Here are 10 ideas and ways to practice self-care with your dog:

1. Take a walk.

2. Give them a massage.

3. Play with them.

4. Cuddle with them.

5. Gaze into their eyes lovingly.

6. Go to the dog park and socialize.

7. Take a nap together.

8. Meditate together.

9. Let your dog sleep in bed with you.

10. Do some yoga together.

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