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NFL support dog270The National Football League’s San Francisco 49ers recently announced a new teammate had joined their roster. This one is special; she can’t catch a ball, at least not a football. She can’t throw or tackle. What she can do goes far beyond the extreme physical requirements for professional football players.

Zoë is a one-year-old French Bulldog, the first emotional support animal to join the National Football League.

Over the last decade or so, the NFL has been under tremendous pressure to improve mental health support, research, and resources for their players and personnel. While professional football players have to deal with the same mental health issues as everyone else, they must also manage the many serious symptoms associated with repeated head injuries. Studies have shown that the compounding effects of football-related head injuries – everything from mild contact to concussions – can significantly increase a player's risk of poor psychological health. Depression, confusion, aggression, and dementia are all identified as symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a brain disease caused by repeated head injuries.

Playing in the NFL can oftentimes be an isolating experience. Being on the road for weeks on end, away from friends and family, can increase the risk of developing loneliness and signs of depression. Having a bad game, and letting down teammates and fans alike, adds even more pressure to the winner-take-all culture. Unfortunately, stigmas surrounding mental health combined with the 'tough guy' image of being a football player, prevents a majority of players from seeking adequate, long-term assistance.

The 49ers are hoping to help break down those invisible walls, and it all starts with Zoë. “The players rely on Zoë to brighten their day,” a team spokesperson recently told a CNN representative. “Meetings, practice, and workouts can make for a long day. Zoë acts as a stress reliever.”

While Zoë is officially owned by the team’s Director of Player Engagement, she spends a majority of her time running about the training grounds, helping players to relieve stress, and boost overall morale. It seems to be working, too, as the team is undefeated up to this point. Many of the players have reported reduced levels of stress after brief interactions with Zoë. Most notably is Solomon Thomas, who has been outspoken about his struggles with poor mental health after the death of his sister in 2018.

Zoë is a registered emotional support dog, and is currently working towards becoming a certified therapy dog. It is the hope that as Zoë becomes more widely recognized for her therapy work with the 49ers, other teams will be quick to do the same.

Emotional support animals evoke powerful, positive emotions through touch, play, and sharing the same space. They create a happy distraction, and make many people simply feel good. The powerful dynamic between humans and support animals affects neurotransmitters in the human brain, increasing dopamine, which creates positive sensations. This can help to calm anxiety and improve a person’s outlook. Animals provide unconditional love, without judgment or expectations. This is why the use of emotional support animals has been rapidly increasing in popularity, and is becoming more commonplace in the workplace, schools, hospitals, and more.

Companies all over the world are now embracing the benefits of having pets in the workplace, as it makes for happier employees. Notably, Google, Intel, Farmer’s Insurance, Ben & Jerry’s, and Amazon are among the widely recognizable businesses adopting pet-friendly workspaces. In fact, at Amazon, every day is “take your dog to work day”; they have approximately six thousand dogs at their Seattle facility!

There is no doubt that service dogs and emotional support animals have a unique role to play in human mental health. This is especially evident in people who work in emotionally demanding environments. Looking towards the future, the demand for emotional support animals will continue to grow exponentially, and for good reason – pets clearly make us happier.

Brandon Forder, known as The Pet Expert, is vice-president of Canadian Pet Connection, an industry leader in healthy pet lifestyles. Brandon has more than twenty-five years of experience specializing in pet health, nutrition, and behaviour. He has written hundreds of informative pet-related articles for newspapers, magazines, radio, and the popular Ask the Pet Expert Blog. Brandon is proficient in pet problem solving, and enjoys teaching others about smart and responsible pet ownership. To learn more, visit www.CanadianPetConnection.ca.