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Experts say dogs can be a comfort to people who are feeling stressed. BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy
  • Researchers say dogs can detect changes in odors that let them know when people are feeling stressed.
  • Experts say dogs can be trained to help reduce a person’s anxiety when they detect these scents.
  • They add that people should be fully aware of the responsibilities of owning a dog before they bring one home.

Stress smells and dogs know it.

A study published today in the journal PLOS ONE reports that dogs can detect an odor associated with the change in Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) produced by humans experiencing psychological stress.

Researchers examined samples of breath and sweat from non-smokers who had not recently eaten or drank. Samples were collected before and after a fast-paced arithmetic (ie., stress-inducing) activity. Other measures of stress including heart rate and blood pressure were also analyzed.

Participants who reported higher stress levels after the activity were introduced to dogs within the next three hours.

These dogs of different breeds were trained with a clicker-and-kibble method to sniff out stress and engage in an alert behavior. Researchers said the dogs demonstrated an accuracy of 93% in detecting stress.

“This study demonstrates that dogs can discriminate between the breath and sweat taken from humans before and after a stress-inducing task. This finding tells us that an acute, negative, psychological stress response alters the odor profile of our breath/sweat, and that dogs are able to detect this change in odor,” the study authors wrote.

Dr. Helen Egger, a child psychiatrist and co-founder of children’s mental health app Little Otter, says this finding shows how dogs can be trained to respond to human stress and distress.

“Currently, dogs are trained to identify visual cues, not odors related to stress and anxiety,” she told Healthline. “Detecting smell could be one of the ways a service dog detects signs of an anxiety attack or heightened stress.”

This could be helpful in cases where the dog could then be trained to fetch medication, get help, calm a person down, or even provide deep pressure therapy to soothe their owner, said Egger.

Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a clinical psychologist and neuropsychologist based in New York City as well as the director of Comprehend the Mind, notes that the only way dogs that sniff our stress can benefit a person is if the dog undergoes intensive training to know what to do when a human is stressed.

The dog will also need to be trained on understanding the difference between “ordinary” stress versus a panic attack or severe physical stress such as an oncoming heart attack or a seizure, Hafeez told Healthline.

“Pets appear to provide more benefits than merely companionship,” says Egger.

She says pets help people with serious mental health issues by:

  • providing empathy
  • providing connections that can assist in redeveloping social avenues
  • serving as “family” in the absence of or in addition to human family members
  • supporting self-efficacy
  • strengthening a sense of empowerment

Hafeez explains that the research ​​on dogs and mental health supports that having dogs as pets reduces depression, anxiety, and stress.

“Dogs can help mitigate anxiety,” she says. “When pet owners touch, hear, see or talk to their dogs, it often brings a sense of well-being and happiness.”

Dogs also motivate people to exercise, which further decreases stress and acts as a remedy for loneliness.

Hafeez adds that dogs can also offer a heightened sense of purpose as people age.

While there are clear mental health benefits to spending time bonding with a dog, actually bringing one into the family may not always be the best choice.

“A dog is a living, breathing creature that not only needs food, shelter, and walks, it also needs attention, care, grooming, and regular vet checkups, and sometimes medication and additional precautions for pre-existing medical conditions,” says Hafeez.

“Often, people bring a dog into the home because they only think about the cute and cuddly factor and what the dog can do for them,” she adds. “They may not realize that a dog (even an adult one) is like having a perpetual toddler in the home who is entirely dependent on you for its care.”

When it may not be the right time to adopt a dog:

  • You are living with serious mental health issues,
  • You are experiencing an active substance use disorder
  • You are struggling to care for your own basic needs

Only you can make the choice about what is right for your household, but Hafeez notes it may not be fair to bring a dog into a home where the owner may not have the psychological or physical capacity to tend to all of a dog’s needs.

Hafeez shares the following questions to consider before adopting a dog:

  • Do you have the financial means?
  • Is there anyone in your home or outside of the home who could take care of the dog in case of an emergency?
  • Do you feel responsible and mentally and physically able to care for the complete well-being of a pet?
  • Do you have issues that would preclude you from taking the dog for regular walks, feeding meals, grooming, and medical care?
  • What do you really expect out of owning a dog?
  • Are your expectations for what the dog will provide for you reasonable?
  • Is this a passing novelty or something you want in your life?

Egger says it’s important to distinguish between a pet and a service dog.

“Service therapy dogs can be indicated as an intervention that is part of a person’s mental health treatment plan. All service dogs have completed specialized training and are legally recognized by the Americans with Disabilities Act,” she says.

“The decision to get a service therapy dog should be explored with a mental health professional and organizations that specialize in service dogs,” says Egger.

However, pet dogs do make a difference, even if they are not trained as emotional support dogs, she says. For example, a 2015 study found an association between children with a pet dog and a decreased probability of childhood anxiety.

Egger comes to the topic from both a professional and personal perspective.

“Interestingly, I have a 26-year-old son with a brain illness and I am exploring whether a therapy dog would decrease his anxiety, provide social support, and help him engage in the world,” she says.

Egger reminds us that while dogs are wonderful for children, it is not realistic for parents to think that they are getting the dog for the child and they will do all of the care.

“As a parent, you need to be willing to care for the dog, too,” she notes.

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