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Can Dogs Sense Depression & Anxiety?

As millions of canine enthusiasts around the world will be happy to tell you, life can be better when it’s spent in the company of dogs. Both anecdotal evidence and actual research suggest that dogs can elevate your mood, ease stress, and encourage you to incorporate more exercise into your life. But how far do the health benefits of dogs extend? For example, can dogs sense depression and anxiety?

Do Dogs Have Heightened Senses?

Before we answer the question, Can dogs sense depression and anxiety?, let’s take a quick look at how dogs’ senses differ from humans.

Dogs perceive their environment via the same five senses that humans (and most other animals) use: sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. However, just because people and their four-footed companions employ the same senses, that doesn’t mean they have the same level of perception.

For example, the authors of an August 2021 study in the open access journal Animals noted that a dog’s sense of smell is significantly more advanced than that of the person on the other end of the leash. Dogs, the authors wrote, can detect different types of odors with “a precision far exceeding the analytical capabilities of most modern instruments.”

The ability of dogs to detect scents that neither humans nor most machines can recognize has allowed them to achieve “outstanding results in the detection of drugs, explosives, and different illnesses, such as cancer, diabetes, or infectious disease,” the study’s authors added.

So, science tells us that dogs’ superior sense of smell means they can sniff out some physical illnesses. But can they achieve similar successes in the realm of mental health? As we asked earlier, can dogs sense depression and anxiety?

Can Dogs Sense Depression & Anxiety?

If you’ve spent much time in the company of dogs, you already know that they can become extremely well attuned to the moods of their humans. Some dogs even seem to be able detect emotions such as fear in people they’ve never met before.

But can these anecdotal experiences stand up to scientific review? And, even if a dog can tell when you’re angry or overjoyed, does this apply to actual mental health concerns? Again, can dogs detect depression and anxiety?

Dogs haven’t yet developed the capacity to accurately diagnose a mental illness. But according to at least one study, they may be able to do a remarkably good job of identifying when a person is experiencing psychological distress.

This study, which was led by animal behavior expert Clara Wilson of Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland, was published by the open-access, peer-reviewed journal PLOS One in September 2022. 

Wilson’s team set out to determine if dogs can sense stress in humans. Features of their study included the following: 

  • Two breath and sweat samples were taken from 36 human participants – once to establish a baseline, and once after they had completed what the researchers described as a “stress-inducing” task involving mental arithmetic.
  • The stress experienced by the human participants was documented via both self-reporting and physiological testing with the Biopac MP150 system.
  • Four dogs participated in the study. The dogs had previously been trained to alert when they smelled a breath or sweat sample that had been taken after the stress-inducing task.
  • Researchers presented various combinations of stressed and non-stressed breath and sweat samples (along with sample materials that contain no sweat) to the dogs over the course of 30 separate sessions.

Here’s how the dogs did:

  • The worst performing dog was able to identify the stress samples 90% of the time. 
  • The best performing dog identified stress samples with a 96.88% success rate. 
  • The average success rate among all four dogs was 93.75%.

“Dogs were able to discriminate, with a high degree of accuracy, between human breath and sweat samples taken at baseline and when experiencing psychological stress,” the research team reported. “These results suggest that there is a [volatile organic compound] profile associated with acute psychological stress that is detectable by trained dogs.”

Correctly alerting to sweat samples from people who have just completed a stressful task is not the same as accurately identifying depression and anxiety, of course. But the UK study indicates that dogs can, indeed, tell when humans are in the midst of an emotional crisis. 

Treatment Options for Depression & Anxiety

If you have been struggling with depression or anxiety, or if you know someone who has, please know that effective treatment is available. When you get proper care, you can learn to manage your symptoms, regain control of your thoughts and emotions, and live a much healthier life.

Both depression and anxiety can be treated with a combination of prescription medication and therapy. Depending on how severe your symptoms are, you may benefit from receiving treatment at one or more of the following levels:

  • Residential care
  • Partial hospitalization program (PHP)
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP)
  • Outpatient program

Depending on which type of program you participate in, your treatment for depression or anxiety may include services such as the following:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Red light therapy
  • Genetic testing
  • EMDR therapy
  • Spravato treatment
  • Alpha-Stim 
  • Biosound therapy

There is no single, universally appropriate type of treatment for every person who has depression or anxiety. What’s most important is finding the center whose services and overall approach to treatment align with your needs, goals, and preferences. 

Find Treatment for Depression & Anxiety in Nashville, TN

Arbor Wellness is a respected provider of comprehensive care for adults who have been struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns. Our center in Nashville, Tennessee, is a safe and welcoming place that is staffed by a team of highly skilled professionals. When you get the right type and level of care for depression or anxiety, your life can get much better. To learn how we can help, give us a call or visit our admissions page.