Can Dogs Play a Role in Recovery?

Can Dogs Play a Role in Recovery?

Dogs are often considered to be “man’s best friend.” These animals are known for their loyalty and love towards humans, but dogs can offer more benefits than just being companions. In recent years, treatment centers have begun to take advantage of the significant role dogs can play in the recovery process. There is a life beyond addiction, and dogs can play a crucial role in lasting, meaningful recovery. 

What Is Dog-Assisted Therapy? 

Dog-assisted therapy for substance use disorders (SUD) is an umbrella term for several therapeutic and recreational activities that harness the healing power of dogs. While in an addiction treatment program, you can benefit from the human-animal bond to assist you during your recovery process. The dynamic and mutually beneficial relationship between people and therapy animals can positively influence your overall health and well-being.

The Brain, Addiction, and Dogs

When you abuse substances, you change how your brain functions. Drugs and alcohol interact with the limbic system in the brain to release “feel-good” chemicals, such as dopamine, which affect your body and mind. Your brain rewards you when you do something that brings you pleasure, such as using substances. However, this can cause your brain and body to crave more of the substance to create more of those intense feelings, creating a cycle of drug and alcohol use. Eventually, you may need to use substances just to feel normal. 

In recovery, you can find alternative methods for your brain to release these “feel-good” chemicals safely and naturally. One way to do this is through emotional support animals, animal-assisted therapy, and service dogs. Oxytocin is a receptor in the brain that causes several physiological changes. It can slow heart rate and breathing, reduce blood pressure, and activate the production of stress hormones, creating a profound sense of calm, comfort, and focus. Companion animals cause oxytocin and other neurotransmitters to be released from your brain.

Interacting with dogs in recovery not only increases blood levels of oxytocin but also boosts levels of beta-endorphins, which are natural painkillers associated with a “runner’s high,” and dopamine, the “reward” hormone. These neurochemicals are essential to your sense of well-being.

Reducing Negative Emotions and Boosting Mood

When you get sober, feelings that you have been suppressing may come up. As a result, you may feel anxiety, guilt, and shame as you begin your recovery process. However, unconditional love from a dog can have a calming effect, reducing feelings of isolation and encouraging a positive attitude in life. 

Studies have shown that playing with dogs can boost mood by increasing levels of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, chemicals that stimulate the pleasure centers in the human brain. Animal interaction has also been shown to reduce the level of cortisol, a hormone that is related to stress. 

Petting dogs is also known to reduce blood pressure and have a calming effect. One study found that people with pet dogs have a more stable heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations than non-dog owners. The ability of dogs to help you handle stressful situations can help with managing triggers and avoiding relapse.

Responsibility, Routine, and Self-Care

When interacting with dogs in recovery, you can learn many essential life skills. Dogs can help you develop healthier habits as you adjust to a new lifestyle in recovery. Dogs can also help you create a sense of responsibility and reduce impulsivity. When you care for a dog, you are responsible for another living creature other than yourself, promoting accountability. 

For example, dogs need to be walked regularly. Having a dog that you take care of can help you create a daily routine around the care of your dog. Dogs also need food, shelter, and grooming. Engaging in a routine of caring for a dog contributes to feelings of self-worth and importance. As you continue this routine of caring for your dog daily, it can boost confidence and encourage self-care. Caring for a dog means you also have to take care of yourself — these animals rely on you.

Improved Treatment Outcomes

Dog-assisted therapy improves compliance and increases the chances of you completing addiction treatment. Higher cortisol hormone levels in response to stress are associated with higher treatment dropout rates. However, dogs help reduce stress, and scientists believe that dog-assisted activities, either in the form of casual interaction with pets or through structured addiction recovery programs, can benefit people with substance use disorders and help them complete a treatment program.

Interactions between you and a therapy dog under the supervision of a trained healthcare provider can also strengthen the bond between you and a therapist. A strong working relationship with your therapist is a good predictor of positive treatment outcomes. A dog can help you develop mindfulness and overcome emotional dysregulation. Dog-assisted therapy has been shown to boost mood, confidence, and communication skills, all of which are beneficial in the path to recovery from substance abuse.