Why Dogs Are Such Great Motivators

There are around 70 million companion dogs in the U.S., according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. We keep these remarkable creatures around because they enrich our lives in numerous ways, from providing unconditional love to protecting our home from the threat of intruders. They can also motivate us to do better on a personal level.

The relationship between our personal motivation and our canine companions is complex and fascinating.

The Psychology of Motivation

What motivates you road sign

Motivation is a goal-oriented process that’s responsible for activating behavior. While researchers aren’t exactly sure how to explain the motivation process in a biological sense, motivation can be either extrinsic or intrinsic.

  • Intrinsic motivation comes from within, while extrinsic motivation can be found in numerous sources, from the idea of a monetary reward for completing the task to the possibility of social recognition.
  • Extrinsic motivational sources are often stronger than internal sources, simply because they’re harder to ignore and come with tangible rewards.

Dogs are an uncanny extrinsic motivational source, helping you overcome barriers in all aspects of your life, from self-doubt to lack of exercise.

In a sense, their happiness is your reward, and your dog’s very existence can motivate you to keep going even when you feel like throwing in the towel.

That’s why dogs are a great motivational tool when it comes to staying fit.

Take a Hike (With a Leashed Dog)

Young couple walking dog in the park

The benefits of exercising with your pooch are two-fold: You’ll stay motivated and healthy while your dog has fun and learns appropriate behaviors.

Regular, brisk walks have been shown to help lower your blood pressure, strengthen your heart, and give you more energy overall. 

Further, studies show that dogs help motivate you on the days when you’re not feeling up for exercise. Rather than making excuses as to why you can’t exercise, walking your dog becomes a habitual, daily activity.

As for your canine friend, regular walks provide the opportunity for leash and behavior training in a variety of settings. Walking on a regular schedule also helps keep your dog fit and reduces canine stress, which can manifest itself in several types of negative behavior, such as excessive chewing and barking.

And the health benefits of dog ownership don’t stop with our physical health. Dogs also provide therapeutic value to many individuals who are dealing with mental illness or trauma.

The Canine/Therapy Connection

Therapy dog at work

Dogs are increasingly being used in counseling settings, and trauma victims report positive results when canine companionship is part of their treatment plan. Individuals with PTSD, from combat veterans to survivors of sexual assault, are especially receptive to the presence of therapy dogs during treatment.

According to psychologists, dogs help keep trauma victims firmly planted in the present, rather than reliving past traumatic and stressful events. Since dogs love unconditionally, they help remind survivors what love feels like, alleviating feelings of despair and hopelessness.

Dogs can even interrupt panic or anxiety attacks, making them more valuable than many traditional forms of treatment.

Thus, if you’re interested in a career as a psychologist or counselor, don’t overlook the healing potential of using therapy dogs as an element of your practice. Offering canine support therapy can help set you apart from your peers, allowing you to help a larger pool of trauma survivors than you could otherwise.

Dogs Can Help Foster Stronger Family Ties

Young family with with their dogs

As we have seen, dog ownership positively impacts individual health, but canine companions can also strengthen family bonds. Again, this is largely due to the unconditional love that dogs bring to every relationship.

Studies have shown that children who grow up alongside a dog have stronger relationships with their parents and classmates. This is likely because the deep feelings of love that children have towards their pet dogs carry over into other personal relationships.

Children who grow up with dogs are often gentle, caring, patient, and more understanding than their classmates who grew up in a household without pets.

And adults aren’t left out in the dog/human relationship strengthening paradigm. The family dog can serve as a sort of mediator during times of strife or when family members feel ill will towards one another. Your shared love for your dog may just serve as the reason to apologize or reconcile a disagreement.

Dog Ownership Considerations

While the benefits of dog ownership are numerous, some individuals and families face prohibitive barriers when it comes to opening their home to a canine companion. For instance, the cost of owning a dog can be substantial when you factor in vet visits, high-quality food purchases, and licensing.

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Keep in mind that if your dog is certified for use as a therapy or service animal, there may be additional licensing fees to consider.

A health emergency is another situation where you may have to pay significant out-of-pocket costs as a dog owner. During those times, your dog may be unable to exercise until he or she is fully healed, but don’t let that curb your motivation to exercise every day.

Even if dog ownership is cost-prohibitive for you at this time, you can still reap the motivational benefits that canines provide.

Consider volunteering as a dog walker at your local animal shelter or humane society. Working with homeless dogs is beneficial to both your personal health and the happiness of those lonely canines.

In fact, volunteering has been shown to foster brain health. Coupled with the exercise and companionship that accompanies a brisk walk with your favorite dog, helping those homeless pooches is a win-win for everyone involved!

Final Thoughts

Dogs enrich our lives in so many ways, from helping us strengthen familial bonds to upping our overall mental and physical health. Plus, dogs may just be one of the best extrinsic motivational tools in our personal arsenal.

Whether your health-related goal is to lose weight or learn how to cope with trauma in a more positive manner, don’t underestimate the power of having a dog in your life. Dogs help us see beyond ourselves, motivating us to change and improve our lives.

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