Dog lovers know that our pets can cheer us up on a bad day, but new research shows that they may have a significant effect on our brain chemistry.
Lindsay Ellsworth, a doctoral candidate at the Washington State University, is using shelter dogs as part of a mood-boosting therapy program for teenagers recovering from drug and alcohol abuse at Excelsior Youth Center  in Spokane, Wash.
To study the program's effects, Lindsay separates participants into two groups once a week for one hour. One group plays games, such as billiards or basketball and the second group interacts with shelter dogs.
Before and after the activity, participants identify 60 mood descriptors as part of a emotion scale called PANAS-X. Those who spent time with the dogs showed an increase in joviality, positive affect (a psychology term for the experience of feeling or emotion), attentiveness, and serenity. They also showed a decrease in overall sadness. This is important because many of the teens are also being treated for ADHD, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
Even Lindsay was surprised at how calm the teens were around the dogs and at the overall decrease in outbursts and hyperactivity. She hypothesizes that the feel good chemical dopamine (the same chemical released when we clicker train our pups!) is released in the teens' brains as they anticipate the canine interaction and that social companionship with the pups may also stimulate opiod release, a chemical linked to calming and anti-depression.
Lindsay is hopeful that dogs could naturally help restore the normal function of these critical chemical messengers after the brain's chemistry has been altered through drug use.
Starting this summer, Lindsay will be expanding her research to look at how dogs can influence the teens' engagement in group therapy and cooperation in structured activities.
The prospect of a natural, low-cost behavior intervention is pretty exciting and even cooler that it gives shelter pups a job. I'm looking forward to hearing more about Lindsay's upcoming research!