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Every dog has its day: how our furry friends can support brain rehabilitation 

Constant Therapy | Brain health

This week is National Dog Week and in celebration of these wonderful creatures, we looked into the science behind the common belief that our dogs can reduce stress and anxiety, ease loneliness, encourage exercise, and generally spark joy on a daily basis.

Dogs have evolved to become acutely tuned in to human behavior and emotions

Dogs can understand many of the words we use, but they’re even better at interpreting our tone of voice, body language, and gestures – like a good friend, a loyal dog will try to sense your emotional state to understand what you’re thinking and feeling. As a result, it’s been found that dog owners tend to be less lonely, have higher self-esteem, be more extroverted, and harbor less fear about getting close to other people.

Studies show that companion dogs have psychological and physiological benefits

In a comprehensive review of the scientific literature on the topic, the authors of Human-animal interactions, relationships and bonds: a review and analysis of the literature, published in the International Journal of Comparative Psychology, found evidence of wide ranging beneficial effects of companion animal interaction. These included “benefits such as reduction in stress as evidenced by reduction in cortisol, heart rate and blood pressure; general improved physical health, particularly with respect to cardiovascular disease; social attention, social behavior, interpersonal interactions, mood, and self-reported fear and anxiety.”

In addition, the authors found that it’s even possible to detect changes in brain activity that indicate lower stress in human subjects just in the mere presence of a companion animal, without any interaction!

Survivors of trauma, illness or injury often find comfort and support from companion animals during the process of brain rehabilitation

From the daily comfort of your own dog, to those that are specially trained for therapy and assistance dogs can provide confidence, relieve loneliness, provide motivation or assistance with walking and other movement, and generally give a sense of purpose to life for those recovering from brain injury or stroke, or living with aphasia, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative disorders.

Specifically, dogs can provide these five benefits: 

  1. Relief from loneliness. Having a stroke or brain injury can be an isolating experience. If the survivor also has aphasia, it may feel difficult to communicate with other people. A dol provides comfort, company and stimulation, as well as a pathway to a less isolated life.
  2. Lessening negative emotions. Brain rehabilitation is difficult and can take an emotional toll on survivors. Dogs offer acceptance, love, and motivation. Even just petting a dog can provide a calming and comforting effect that may help with mental health.
  3. Motivation to move. A dog can provide an incentive for survivors to work rebuilding walking ability. Clinicians report seeing patients walk further with a dog on a daily walk, than without, because they are distracted by the dog and aren’t aware of how far they are walking. In addition, activities like brushing a dog, feeding them treats, and putting a leash on and off can act as exercises to help increase motor recovery.
  4. Help with aphasia. Dogs may encourage individuals with aphasia to try to communicate. Being out and about with a dog, for example, is a great conversation starter, giving survivors more opportunities to practice talking with strangers.
  5. A sense of purpose. Dogs may provide the comfort, confidence, and motivation survivors need to continue rehabilitation.

And so, a round of appaws for our furry companions!

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  1. Carole Large

    It’s not only the patient who benefits from dog companions. I am the caregiver for my husband who is recovering from TBI and there are days when I don’t want to get out of bed, but knowing my little dog needs me has been a big motivator for my getting up and starting the day. We are enjoying your new e-mail articles and thank God for dogs!!!

    • Carla Gates

      Thank you so much for your response to our article, Carole. We wish you and your husband (and pup!) the best.


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