Can pets really lower your stress level? Dog trainer, rescuer discusses

Dec 02, 2011

In an attempt to lower the stress level of its students, George Mason University School of Law held a "Puppy Day" Thursday, where they brought in 15 homeless and adoptable puppies for the students to play with.

But can animals really lower a person's stress level? Colleen Learch from Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation says yes.

Chat with Colleen about the health benefits of having a pet, along with ways to train them, what kind of pet suits you and more.

Do you have a good story about how a pet has made a difference in your life? Submit it to this chat! Submit any questions you have for Colleen now, too.

Read: Cuddly puppies help law students de-stress before exams

Thank you for joining today’s chat “Can Pets Really Help Reduce Stress.”  I’m Colleen Learch with Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation, and I’m at my computer with my own best sources of stress relief:  Kodi the Terrier and Bruschi the Puggle.  We’re all excited about this topic today, so let’s get started!

It seems to me that dogs are highly overrated because so few professionals talk about the downside. Some owners seem to think they can take the dog out and play with it and put it back on the shelf when they're tired. Dogs take a lot of work and demand a lot in training and tolerance. No other creature on earth has the phrase "man's best friend" and that is not always an easy relationship to come by.

"Tis true!  And thanks for starting us off with such a good point.  Dogs do require training, companionship, love, affection that goes beyond just a walk around the park.  It's unfair to them if they are put back on that shelf after minimal exercise.  If given the opportunity, they truly become part of your family, and that relationship, when allowed to flourish, is truly beautiful.  


When my fiancee moved in with me and my cats about a year and half ago, she brought her dog with her. I love animals, so it was wonderful to have even more of them in the apartment. I was not prepared, however, for the time and work that is needed to care for a dog. He needs to have food and water, toys, and a soft bed. He also needs exercise, so we have a dog walker who comes in the middle of the day, and we walk him in the mornings and evenings. I became accustomed to caring for cats and then for the dog, and now it's just part of my routine. If students want to have pets, I suggest cats (preferably two, so one is not lonely while the student is away at the library for hours on end). They are just as wonderful and cuddly as dogs, and they don't need quite as much attention.

Kudos to you for doing the right thing and lining up a dog walker twice a day.  I bet your dog appreciates those ventures outside, and it sounds like he really has become an important part of your life.  

Last year, after not getting a job for which I had been one of two finalists, I lost my father and an uncle within a week of one another. During the resultant depressive episode, my dogs kept me going. Making sure they got enough exercise was the one thing that got me out of the house other than work.

So sorry to hear of your losses, and thanks for sharing your story.  In rescue, we often have adopters who come back to us years later and tell us that it was their dog or cat who helped them through a tough spot.  It's a case of "Who rescued who?"   

I live alone and could go all day without talking to another person. My dog listens to what I'm saying and actually pays attention. She's a great sounding board.

Dogs and cats are incredibly perceptive.  I often argue that they understand us better than we sometimes understand them!  They pay so much attention to what we are communicating, verbally and non-verbally.  Its important to remember just how smart these animals really are, so that we don't overlook their physical and mental needs.  

Hi Colleen - I wanted to let you and all the chatters out there know that I love your organization! I adopted a cat from Lost Dog Cat & Rescue Foundation in October, and she is great. I've been experiencing depression for the past year plus, and my counselor thought that having a cat would help. I'd already been thinking about getting a cat, so I went for it, and it's been great. It is therapeutic to be watching TV or reading and having the cat sit next to me, purring away. Now the part that is hard is leaving her in the morning - I'd rather stay home and play with her than go to work!

Thank you for rescuing a cat!  And, thanks for sharing your story.  Be sure to send us a picture of you and her together!  

Yes, cats lower my stress level. And make me view my world entirely differently. Though that can bring up a different type of stress. I have someone else to take care about, to care for. Two years ago my world was all about my addiction; now, it's all about my "precious girl". A friend and I rescued her and her litter mates the day after Christmas. The gift that keeps on giving.

You bring up a good point.  Caring for pets is a big deal!!~  And, its important not to lose sight of that when you are considering adding a pet to your family.  They are living, thinking beings that have needs.   They give us the incredible gift of companionship-- sometimes unconditionally-- but we have to remember to give them what they need in return.  


Any training tips for puppies? Any at all? I just got mine and while I love him, he poops everywhere and chews everything.

The best tip I can pass along is to take the time to build a relationship with your pup from the start. That means investing the time to learn to communicate with your dog through training courses and the energy into exercising your dog so that your dog has the best opportunities to stay active and healthy.    Your dog will say 'thank you' in his/her own way, every day!  

When I get home from work, I take the dog for a walk. That time with him really gives me a chance to transition out of work mode and into relaxation time for the rest of the evening. Between the walking, which provides exercise, and the smiles that he brings to my face, it just makes my day a thousand percent better to come home to a dog.

It does, it does!!  Thanks for sharing.  

I cannot agree more that pets help reduce stress. I have two miniature schnauzers and such a source of enjoyment. I have one problem: my male barks constantly and I live in an apartment building...I'm fearing impending threats of eviction or at least sanction but don't know how to handle this. One extreme suggestion given to me was surgically cut vocal cords but that seems beyond cruel. Any advice?

Take the time to understand what it is that is making your dog bark.  I suspect he is trying to communicate something to you.   Often, us humans just classify all barking as the same thing: loud, noisy, disruptive.  Its not.  It has meaning- us humans just have to figure out what it is.  Rather than consider a cruel, inhumane surgery, enlist a trainer to visit your home, assess the situation, and put together a plan for putting your dog at ease.  I promise, it will be worth it in the end.  

I worry that if I adopt a rescue dog, instead of buying one from the store, that it will have emotional issues and be difficult to work with. Can you advise on that?

It's a common misperception. Thanks for giving us the opportunity to speak to it.  Just like with humans, there are no guarantees that an animal from any source won't have an emotional issue at some point in their life.  Emotions are real, we all have them.   And yes, in rescue, we give dogs who have had a rough past another chance.  We often hear stories of their personal growth and healing once in a home.  Plenty of pets that find their way into rescue, however, come baggage-free.  It is important to get to know a pet before you make a commitment to bring it in to your family, and make sure you are willing to provide what that pet needs.  Ask questions, and be willing to accept honest answers.  

There's nothing better than being greeted when you come home by a dog who is thrilled to see you!

I couldn't agree more.  Its interesting.  My husband and I have always valued our dog's "welcome" into our/their home at the end of the day.  Now, our 2 year old looks forward to it as much as we do.  "See my Bruschi, See my Kodi," he says on the ride home.  We just love it!  

Thank you for your answer...I understand your response but don't know how to apply it. My dog barks at everything...every noise, every person upstairs walking around, everything...we like to say that he barks at the wind blowing. It's made all the more frustrating that my other dog really is more in the normal range of barking at strangers and threats but nothing else. Is it possible he has some sort of anxiety disorder? He is also a terror on a's really sad because he loves other dogs but he scares them all with all that noise-making! Thanks again!

Unfortunately, its impossible to diagnose anxiety online!  It really sounds like you could benefit from having a dog professional come and meet your pup and advise on a plan.  Its sometimes a hard step to take- to acknowledge that you can't do it on your own... I was there once myself.  Some time with a dog professional can really change your world, and that of your dog.  

I have a big window in my livingroom that looks down onto the street.  My dog contantly barks out of the window at the cars.  It's hard to block her from the window, and I've tried tricks to make her stop, like putting pennies in a can and shaking it to startle her - hasn't worked. Any ideas on how to get her to stop barking at the cars below?

I'll share the same suggestion as the one I shared with another in this chat.  Take the time to learn what it is your dog is trying to communicate with all the barking, and that might mean enlisting an outside source to help you understand your dog better.  

I think getting the dog and the human(s) some training will go a long way toward making any dog from any source a happier creature who is easier to live with. Our dog was "not for adoption" due to behavior issues. He was so hyperactive, we had to tie his leash to the radiator to get a break from constant vigilance. Now he's the most mellow, obedient sweetheart (and I'm sure he's happier now, too).

If you can understand your pup,  (and the same goes for cats), your relationship becomes so much richer and more enjoyable.  THAT brings about all new leves of stress relief!  

When I was a kid, and I was sad or upset, I always felt better by petting or holding our cats and dog. It's still true (different cats and dog now, but the same comfort). Also, I feel the same way as the person who said that having to walk the dogs gets her/him out of the house. Some days, that's the only time I get outside.

Its amazing how much my son has bonded with our dogs, and vice versa!  Of course... I do think my mischievious little puggle enlists the toddler's help to do things that his paws otherwise wouldn't allow... they really are quite the pair.  

Has Lost Dog considered reaching out to other local Law Schools to do something similar?

We welcome the opportunity to bring our dogs up for adoption into communities where they can be of service.  We often visit grade schools and after-school programs.  Its good for the dogs, good for the people... and just plain fun!  

Colleen can you explain about stores and puppy mills? If you don't rescue, you should find a very reputable breeder. Store dogs come from puppy mills.

It is a very complex issue, but so important for those looking to get a pet to know about.  HSUS does a fantastic job educating on the issue.  Take a look at the information they provide:    


I grew up with a dog who was not trained (actually, my folks took her for group obedience training twice, but they didn't consistently apply the training), so I know what that's like.The dog I have now has been trained, and it was so exciting when I learned that I get to tell him what to do, instead of being at the mercy of what he wants to do. Plus, after the first session, all of the separation anxiety just stopped. I assume he wasn't anxious anymore because he knew I was in charge, and he didn't have to worry. There are so many people in our neighborhood who yell or talk to their dogs, as if the dog will understand. I can't advocate enough for dog training. It was expensive, but TOTALLY worth it.

Good for you for investing in your relationship with your dog!    And, thanks for sharing on the chat.  

Its tough some times to find time for training, but so important.  Even now, with my dogs who are no longer puppies, we squeeze in training and relationship building whenever possible.  One of my dogs is actually working on developing skills in K9 nosework.  Talk about a fun time for the dog and the human! 

My friend raises service dogs while she goes to college. Our particular college had a spate of suicides a year or so ago, and it was a pretty stressful time for all of us. College administrators were taking drastic steps to stop the pattern, including fences around bridges where people jump, which were unpopular with many students. My friend reports that when she was walking to class with her service dog pup, students would often ask to just have a few minutes with the dog. She said that quite a few students said "They should just put one of these in each dorm. You don't need fences when you have puppies." Purely anecdotal evidence, to be sure, but the number of times she heard a version of this just supports the assertion that dogs can calm stressed students! Although, I would like to note that many college students who own dogs don't quite understand the time and energy that dogs require before they get them. Other animals probably make better pets for college students!

Wow.  Thanks so much for sharing this story.  It really is remarkable how much dogs can center a human.  I'm so glad your college community had this outlet.  AND, its SUCH an argument for dogs being in more public and private places.  Last year for Thanksgiving I was in London and was LOVING that dogs were welcome in the bar, AT the bar no less, with humans.  I was LOVING that dogs were allowed in stores, and allowed to run off leash in the park.   Its just a better way to live.  

We rescued a dog in September. I walk her about 3 miles every day. She was near starvation and has gained about 6 lbs. I've lost the same amount. It seems like a fair exchange.

Where is the love button for this?!  Thanks for sharing, and thanks for rescuing a dog.  


I've been considering getting a dog, but friends are telling me it's more difficult to go through the process to rescue than it would be to simply buy from a reputable breeder. What can you tell me about this?

Rescues want to make sure that the person adopting a dog is going to be able to give it the care the dog needs.  So, with that, there are lots of questions, and there are procedures.  Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation aims to keep the process as streamlined and simple as possible, while still ensuring the pet is going to a good home.  We allow for same-day adoptions, and we offer a two week trial period to make sure that the dog or cat is a match for you and your family.  Whatever rescue you choose to adopt from, I'd recommend becoming as familiar as possible with rules and procedures for adopting, and ask questions if you do not understand.  And, take the time to find a dog or cat that is right for you.  

For the person wondering whether or not it's safe to rescue a dog rather than buy a dog from a breeder, they should read last week's NY Times magazine article about bulldogs.   It's about bulldogs, but they're an extreme case of problems that are common in many dogs bred (and in-bred) for particular traits. -the owner of a perfectly well adjusted and happy rescue dog

Thank you all for such a fun chat today!  I hope this was a little mid-day stress relief for you.  

The impact that a pet has on a human’s life is profound in many ways- I’d argue that every pet lover can recall a point of time in their life that their furry (or hairless) friend helped them through a particulalry  unbearable time, or even just the stress that comes from every day activities.  

Its the relationship that we have with our dogs and cats that make this possible, and its the relationship with them that make our lives better in the presence of pets.  I hope you carry that with you this weekend-  and if you have the chance, pass that along to friends and family that are considering adopting a dog or cat.  Its the relationship that you invest in that truly rescues them (and you!)


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In This Chat
Colleen Learch
Colleen Learch is a volunteer with Lost Dog and Cat Rescue Foundation where she cares for rescued dogs and helps them find new homes. She counsels potential adopters on finding a dog that matches their lifestyle, and educates them on how to best care for the unique needs of their new family member. Colleen and her family also foster puppies and dogs with special needs.
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