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A tiny black lab puppy

Patient Care COVID-19

Want to Banish the COVID Blues? Think 'Pawsitive'

Alumni series highlights how Warrior Canine Connection health benefits translate to all

Author Debra Melani | Publish Date June 1, 2020

Anxiety and cabin fever can stem from the stay-at-home orders impacting American lives for the past few weeks. But for nearly 85 million U.S. families, their households offer something that can reduce their feelings of angst and isolation. And it doesn’t come from the fridge.

Dog therapy increases:
  • Cognitive functioning
  • Emotional functioning
  • Feelings of self-worth
  • Sleep
  • Socialization

Dog therapy decreases:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional numbing
  • Medications
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Flashbacks

This popular attitude-enhancer offers a sense of connection and can lower everything from stress and heart rate to anxiety and loneliness. The miracle elixir inspires outdoor exercise, boosting physical and mental health and levels of the sun’s mood-lifting vitamin D.

It’s also cute, cuddly and dependent, pushing people out of bed in the morning and providing a sense of self-worth. A pet – especially a dog – can ease the COVID blues.

That’s the message from Ann Spader, resident service dog training instructor on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. Spader’s May 27 talk, “The Pawsitive Outcomes of Human-Animal Relationships," was part of the Happy + Healthy Hour CU Anschutz Alumni Wellness Series.

Rebuilding our military heroes

While Spader’s work with the Warrior Canine Connection (WCC) goes deeper than pandemic angst, organizers agreed that now was the perfect time for sharing her research-backed experiences from training and connecting dogs with military families in need.

Spader and colleagues use an evidence-based model in working with military veterans and service members by matching them with dogs trained to help overcome two major fallouts of combat: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI). WCC partners with the Marcus Institute for Brain Health on campus and has sites across the country.

The emotional and cognitive effects of TBI’s make reintroduction into family and civilian life difficult for service members and veterans. Dogs help by alerting to and distracting from the disabling symptoms, whether it’s waking their owners from nightmares or nuzzling them back to the present before they sink into episodes of anxiety, flashbacks and withdrawal.

Puppies, love and hormonesPawsitiveGoldenHug1900

Powerful human-animal bonds are driven largely by oxytocin, often called the “feel-good” or “love” hormone, Spader said. “Oxytocin is one of the main reasons humans continue to reproduce and why mothers love their infants even seconds after the trauma of the birthing process,” she said.

Studies have found the level of oxytocin exchanged between a dog and a person is comparable to what’s shared between a mom and a baby during breastfeeding, Spader said. Oxytocin also creates the feelings of joy and bliss when couples fall in love, she said.

Not only is oxytocin released in both human and dog when owners pet, play and cuddle with their four-legged pals, but it’s released just by making eye contact with their pets, Spader said.

Sorry cat-owners: Dogs rule

PawsitiveBlackLabPub1900

All animal relationships can have positive effects, but at least one study suggested dogs rule, Spader said, apologizing to the cat lovers of the world. Researchers measured increases in oxytocin in animal and owner, comparing cat owners and dog owners.

“The dogs had a drastic increase in oxytocin compared to the cats,” Spader said.

Oxytocin also inspires a tend-and-defend versus a fight-or-flight response by calming the amygdala, an emotion-regulating part of the brain. “We know especially with our veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that this is something they are constantly struggling with,” Spader said of the stress-inducing fight-or-flight response.

Need some puppy love? Try this

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Ann Spader works with a Warrior Canine Connection dog on campus.

Spader ended with a couple of ways puppy-less people can reap the “pawsitive” effects, calling for volunteers interested in puppy parenting and puppy sitting. Puppy parents help WCC raise, train and socialize the pups it breeds for the first few years, generally during evenings and weekends. Puppy sitters fill in for short periods as needed.

Or, for a virtual boost from the COVID blues, anyone can check out the WCC puppy-cam, which Spader said has seen a “huge” increase in viewers since social distancing began. The site offers 24/7 real-time views of WCC’s puppies in their first eight weeks. “It will provide you with hours and hours of really cute, cuddly puppies.” But watch out. “It’s addicting.”


Spader offered much more information about the mission and workings of the life-changing WCC. Watch the full video of her talk below.