Few things calm nerves and lift spirits like the unconditional love, attention and security provided by a good dog.
But while you can probably bond with any dog breed (or combination thereof), some are dogs are better suited for reducing anxiety than others.
Before identifying the best breeds for reducing anxiety, it is important to understand why dogs have this ability in the first place.
In a word: hormones.
According to a 2012 study, published in Frontiers of Psychology, human-animal interactions are thought to activate the oxytocin system. Oxytocin helps regulate the social bonding process. It is the reason that a baby’s gaze fills a new mother with joy; and, it turns out, it’s also the reason a loving look from your pup gives you warm and fuzzy feelings.
And this isn’t a one-sided interaction: As determined by a different 2012 study, your puppy’s oxytocin levels also rise when you are affectionate with him. So, while your puppy is making you feel good, you are making him feel good too.
But hormones aren’t the only reason that dogs help reduce anxiety. They accomplish the task in other ways too:
However, despite the mountain of supporting evidence, dogs are not a magic bullet in the fight against stress and anxiety.
While many studies have found that dogs are capable of providing significant emotional benefits for their humans, some studies have found that conventional stress-and pain-management techniques probably perform equally well.
But come on, do you want to meditate and chant soothing words while thinking about your happy place, or do you want to scratch a dog’s belly while he licks your face?
That’s what I thought.
Obviously, some dogs are more effective at reducing your anxiety than others are. This is true at both the breed level and the individual level.
Dogs that constantly bark and yip, run full speed through your house or have hyper-needy personalities may lead to more anxiety than they allay. Accordingly, it is important to familiarize yourself with some of the personality traits associated with good anxiety-lowering dogs to help you select a good one.
Generally speaking, the most soothing dog breeds and the best dogs for anxiety are canines who are:
Note that intelligence is not listed above; in fact, highly intelligent dogs can cause headaches for some owners. After all, it doesn’t take a genius to follow you around and shower you in unconditional love.
Of course displaying these qualities alone isn’t enough – most official anxiety therapy dogs need to undergo some basic training programs, such as the Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Test, and demonstrate good behavior skills.
Curious what life is like for an anxiety-fighting pooch? Check out this video following therapy dog Fraiser on one of his average days. (Fair warning – lots of “onion cutting” in this video)!
One of the first things you’ll want to consider when trying to pick out a canine to calm you down is size. Some people may find that a big dog helps lower their anxiety, while others will find a tiny pooch fits the bill better.
Obviously, neither option is inherently better than the other; you must simply pick the best-sized pup for your wants, needs, and lifestyle.
However, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind when making your choice:
While every dog is an individual and there are no guarantees, the following breeds are generally considered some of the best dogs for anxiety – these canines are especially well-suited for reducing stress and providing comfort.
These popular and large emotional support dog breeds will excel at comforting you in times of stress.
Standard poodles make great companions for those in need of stress reduction, and their tidy coats make them a breed welcome in homes with allergy sufferers. Standard poodles are very smart, friendly and have an optimistic demeanor, which can’t help but rub off on their owners.
Labrador retrievers are well-suited for so many different purposes that it should come as no surprise that they also excel in a therapy context. Few dogs are as loving as labs, and even fewer are as gentle; they are typically wonderful with children, the elderly, handicapped individuals, and even strangers. This makes them a very popular breed for service work.
Golden retrievers are quite similar to labs in many respects, and they are equally well-suited for eliciting smiles and soothing frazzled nerves. The UKC characterizes them as calm, compliant and compatible – traits which are utterly obvious to anyone who’s ever met one.
Like many of the dogs on this list, they can often pass the Canine Good Citizen Test with a little training, proving just how great these four-legged furry pals can be.
Described as “calm, patient and smart” by the AKC, Great Pyrenees are affectionate dogs who are wonderful for reducing anxiety.
These are big dogs, so you must have enough space for them – females often weigh about 85 pounds, while males tip the scales at about 100 pounds.
Great Danes are calm, confident dogs that are great for reducing anxiety. But you better be sure you are ready to welcome such a big critter to your family – large males may stand nearly 3 feet high at the shoulder.
Nevertheless, Danes provide a type of affection and companionship few other breeds can provide.
Greyhounds are very sensitive dogs, who are very good at picking up on their owner’s emotions. They also love snuggling on the couch with their people, so they are a great choice for people who want a lot of physical contact with their dog.
Note that retired greyhounds are often put up for adoption, but these dogs often come with emotional scars. So, while these dogs can make great pets for some owners, people with high anxiety levels are likely better served by adopting a young greyhound puppy instead.
The border collie is an understandably popular breed, given their fun-loving nature, marvelous temperament and otherworldly intelligence. In fact, they’re often characterized as the smartest breed in the world. But these traits also make these dogs a bit of a handful, as they’re full of energy and a bit mischievous.
So, border collies are rarely recommended for first-time owners, and they aren’t commonly considered ideal for people dealing with anxiety. But anxiety comes in a million different flavors, and some people may find the border collie’s strong personality and ready-to-rock attitude just what they need to feel a bit better.
These pint-sized pooches are just the thing for comforting stressed-out owners.
Pugs aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but those who give them a chance will be rewarded by ridiculous amounts of love and entertainment.
The Canadian Kennel Club describes their expression as “human-like,” which may be part of the reason it is so easy to bond with these little lovers (but they’re big hearts certainly don’t hurt).
Yorkshire Terriers (Yorkies) tend to bond very strongly with their owners and shadow them whenever possible. In fact, they’re at their happiest when they are lavishing love and affection upon their person. Although Yorkies are on the small side, they have a rough-and-tumble personality that the AKC describes as “tomboyish.”
Pomeranians are great for people who want a dog that prefers to stay by your side 24-7 while lavishing you with love (and a bit of entertainment). Most Pomeranians will gladly accompany you everywhere you go, although you may want to invest in a carrying bag of some type, as these little guys and gals have tiny legs.
Just make sure you socialize your Pomeranian early and often, as they’re sometimes distrusting of strangers and kids can make them a bit nervous. They are pretty sharp pups though, and they don’t exhibit some of the training difficulties that some other tiny dogs do.
If you need a few more smiles in your life, a Bichon Frise may be just what the doctor ordered. These little happy-go-lucky cuties are among the friendliest breeds in the world, and they usually greet everyone they encounter with a big set of puppy eyes and a wagging tail. However, they’d always rather be beside their pup parent than anywhere else.
Bichon Frises are also smart and easy to train, so they’re unlikely to cause you many headaches. They do require rather elaborate grooming, so you’ll need to build some room for regular trips to the groomer in your budget. They do not, however, shed very much. So, allergy sufferers may want to give them extra consideration.
The Pembroke Welsh corgi is one of the most affectionate and devoted pets a dog lover could want, and they’re commonly used in therapy contexts. Pembroke Welsh corgis (and, to a lesser extent, their larger cousins the cardigan corgis) are incredibly friendly with most people (and kids), although they can be a bit prickly with other dogs.
Corgis are pretty smart and easy to train, but they are pretty energetic little pups, so they aren’t great for homebodies who live in small apartments. Weighing up to about 30 pounds, we’d consider them small dogs, but they’re certainly not small enough to carry around in a bag with you or sit in your lap the way Pomeranians or Yorkies can.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were bred to be lap dogs, and they love nothing more than relaxing in mom or dad’s lap all day. In fact, they may be the very best choice for owners who just want calm, consistent love from a pet. But this doesn’t mean their prissy – these Spaniels still have all of the pluck and energy that characterizes their bird-flushing ancestors.
These pups make great pets for first-time dog owners, and most have never met another person or dog they didn’t like. They’re also smart and easy to train, and they don’t even require much grooming to keep their luxurious coats looking great.
If you want a dog who is gentle and loving, yet full of energy and gumption, you’d be wise to consider the Havanese. Sometimes called “Velcro dogs,” thanks to their desire to stay at their owner’s side as much as possible, these dogs are great for owners who suffer from anxiety and will benefit from the endless buckets of love they have for their people.
But, you’ll have to be OK with your dog loving everyone else too, as the Havanese is a bit of a social butterfly. However, this makes them great companions or therapy dogs for owners who want constant support, as they’ll usually behave quite well while traveling by your side.
You can find a good dog to help curb your anxiety through all the typical avenues. Rescues often have a wide selection of mixed-breed dogs, while breeders and retailers typically offer purebred varieties.
Give some thought to adopting an older dog if this is your first pet. Young puppies require much more time, effort and patience than adult dogs do, which may move your stress level in the wrong direction.
Adult dogs available at rescues are often housebroken and many have received at least a minimal amount of obedience training. Senior dogs aren’t as popular as puppies, but they still have boundless amounts of love to give and are often more laid back than their younger counterparts.
In all cases, it is wise to do your homework on the charity or breeder with whom you intend to do business.
Just about anyone can benefit from adding a new dog to the family. Pets (well, properly trained pets anyway) offer a wealth of health benefits, including, most notably, the ability to reduce your stress level.
But there’s a big difference in a standard-issue pet and a dog that is capable of being a bona fide emotional support dog. So, it is wise to be clear about your goals when trying to pick a pup. And although many rescue dogs can be trained to perform therapy work, top-tier support dogs don’t exactly grow on trees.
Minimally, you’ll need to get a dog that demonstrates phenomenal obedience and the ability to pass the Canine Good Citizenship Test mentioned above. And, of course, you’ll need to select a dog with whom you connect – if you two don’t get along like old pals, the relationship may be doomed from the start.
Alright. So, you’ve decided that a dog may be just what you need to help cope with your anxiety. What do you do now?
The answer depends, in part, on your goals. The laws, regulations and working practices involving assistance animals is a tangled web that can be difficult to decipher. But, terminology matters, and there’s a difference between a therapy dog, an emotional support dog, and a service animal.
You need to understand the differences between these types of companions, so that you can select the best one for your needs.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, a service animal is “a dog that has been individually trained to do work or perform tasks for an individual with a disability.”
A guide dog who leads his blind owner around is the classic example of a service dog, although other service dogs are trained to monitor their owner’s blood sugar levels, alert their deaf owner to danger, or perform similar tasks.
Service dogs receive a ton of training (which may take years to complete), and they are generally allowed to go anywhere their owner goes, as they are protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). They can walk alongside you at a buffet, they can sleep on your hospital bed, and they can rack up miles while flying around the world with you.
Certification isn’t necessary for service dogs, and you can actually train a service dog to perform the necessary tasks yourself. In other words, while your service dog must be trained, you needn’t necessarily have him trained by a professional.
In fact, the employees of “covered entities” cannot even demand to see proof of your dog’s training. Legally (at least as far as I can tell by reading the DOJ publication referenced above – I’m no lawyer), they can only ask you two questions (paraphrased for brevity):
Therapy dogs are usually trained to provide gentle love and affection to people in hospitals, schools, retirement communities and other places where people often experience stress or anxiety. They are also commonly used following traumatic events to help survivors feel a bit better.
While service dogs and emotional support animals are generally used to provide their owner with support or assistance, therapy dogs are generally used to help other people feel better. And because they aren’t expected to do anything extraordinary, therapy animals don’t need the kind of ultra-specialized training service dogs do. They must simply be well-behaved, gentle and comfortable with receiving love and attention from a variety of different people.
Therapy dogs are not covered by the ADA, they aren’t legally entitled to accompany you on an airplane, and landlords are not required to make special accommodations for them. Generally speaking, they’re treated like pets. However, some businesses will welcome therapy dogs – it just varies from place to place.
Therapy dogs needn’t be certified, but paperwork documenting a therapy dog’s training will likely improve the odds that businesses, schools, and other locations will invite your dog inside.
Emotional support dogs provided disabled owners with comfort or support. They needn’t be trained to perform specific tasks; they simply help their owner to feel better by being a dog (or cat, ferret, hippopotamus – technically, any animal can be an emotional support animal).
Emotional support dogs enjoy more legal protections than therapy dogs do, yet they do not enjoy as many legal protections as service dogs do.
For example, airlines must allow your service dog to accompany you on a flight, and your landlord will have to make special accommodations too. However, you can’t take an emotional support dog with you into most other private businesses, unless the owner voluntarily allows you to do so.
Emotional support animals needn’t be registered, although there are organizations that will allow you to do exactly that. However, to take your dog on a flight or force your landlord to allow him to live with you, you’ll need a letter from your doctor, psychologist or therapist.
Emotional Support Dog
|Basic Services Provided||
Performs specific tasks for a person with a disability
Provides comfort and support to people suffering from emotional or mental disorders
Provides comfort to people (typically people other than the owner) in stressful situations.
Yes – typically quite extensive
Basic obedience training is usually necessary, although not legally required.
No, although you need a note from a doctor, psychologist or therapist.
|Allowed on Airplanes?||
Yes (although size restrictions may be implemented by some carriers)
|Special Housing Permission?||
|Allowed Anywhere You Go?||
Note that none of these dogs are required to wear a vest or badge identifying them as a working animal. But, it’s not a bad idea to outfit him with one though, as long as he doesn’t mind wearing his uniform. This may help diffuse social tensions that occasionally arise when people bring dogs to public places.
Over the last few years, a number of stories have appeared in the press involving people trying to take advantage of the laws protecting emotional support dogs (and other animals).
Often, these people do not have a legitimate need for a support animal. They are just trying to work the system, so they can take their dog with them on a flight without jumping through the hoops typical pet owners must.
Don’t be that guy or gal.
Accommodating animals on a flight is not exactly easy for an airline, and it often generates plenty of stress for the other passengers on the flight. And while most people are certainly understanding of those who legitimately need the help of a support animal, few will take kindly to those who try to skirt around the rules for no good reason.
Trying to push these boundaries will only make it more difficult for those with disabilities to travel with their support dog. Just don’t do it.
If you want to take your dog with you on your flight and have a legitimate need for the emotional support your pet provides, you’ll want to obtain a note from your therapist or doctor. Then, you’ll want to contact the carrier and verify that your dog meets the size requirements some carriers impose (some airlines also have species restrictions, but we’re talking about dogs here).
If you just want a pet to love you and lower your blood pressure when you’re tense, just head down to the local shelter or start perusing breeder advertisements. Stick with one of the breeds above (or some combination thereof, if you go the shelter route), and you’ll likely find that your new pet helps you relax.
On the other hand, if you want a service dog, you’ll probably want to contact a local organization that provides training programs or sells dogs who have already been trained. Because you’ll want to speak with a group in your area, you’ll want to just start Googling and see what you can come up with.
However, you can also start with the AKC, as they offer a certification program and other resources.
As wonderful as they are, dogs also present challenges to their owners. Most people well suited for dog ownership learn to cope with these challenges easily enough, but for others, dogs may bring more stress than they resolve.
For example, you will need to walk and feed your dog on a semi-regular schedule, which may lead to additional stress for those who work long hours or have other responsibilities keeping them away from the house for long periods of time.
If you have a large or active breed, you’ll have to be willing to take long, frequent walks with your pooch.
You will also have to shoulder the considerable financial burdens associated with dog ownership. In addition to the weekly expenses of food, treats, and incidentals, you’ll have to be ready to cover any necessary veterinary bills. Even the healthiest of dogs require periodic immunizations, checkups, and regular teeth cleanings.
Remember that each dog is an individual, and even the twitchiest Chihuahua may help alleviate your anxiety – you have to match your personality to that of your pet.
Have you been able to lower your anxiety by acquiring a dog? Which breed did you choose, and how has that worked out for you? Let us know in the comments below.
Ben is a proud dog owner and lifelong environmental educator who writes about animals, outdoor recreation, science, and environmental issues. He lives with his beautiful wife and spoiled-rotten Rottweiler JB in Atlanta, Georgia. Read more by Ben at FootstepsInTheForest.com.