If you ask long-time dog owners why they have dogs in their family, they’ll probably just shrug and say, “because the house is empty without them”. They really haven’t given it much thought, other than having a dog or two around makes them feel happier.
Well, truth be told, studies have shown that pets improve our health.
And the good news gets even better when we come to realize that our bonds with our dogs can do more for your family’s health than just regulate high blood pressure.
Dogs And Allergies
It’s comforting to see one of the family dogs watching protectively over your new baby while he’s sleeping in his stroller on the front porch. Your other dog is relaxing close by. You were so worried that the dogs would be jealous and so relieved that they instantly accepted the baby as a new member of the family, and took on the role of big brothers too.
But, did you know that your dogs might be protecting your baby in another way? They just might be helping him strengthen his immune system.
In a study upheld by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (published in the August 28, 2002 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association), they say that children raised with two or more dogs (or cats) might be less likely to develop allergy-related diseases than children raised without pets in the household.
In the article, Marshall Plaut, M.D., who is NIAID’s chief of the allergic mechanisms section, said that exposure to pets early in life not only helps protect children against pet allergies, but also helps with allergies to grass, ragweed and dust mites. It has been suggested by Dennis R. Ownby, M.D., Medical College of Georgia, that pets carry bacteria and it is those bacteria that might supress the immune system’s response to allergies.
Dogs And Blood Pressure
You open the door after a very long day at work and your dog comes running over, his tail wagging, eyes sparkling and tongue lolling out the side of his mouth. All your day’s troubles instantly vanish as you kneel down to pet your very best friend. You ask him how his day was and he listens intently as you tell him all about yours. And you find yourself relaxing and smiling. It’s almost like someone has pushed a button and your whole body’s decompressed, and that’s a fairly accurate description of what has actually happened.
If you research the The National Center for Biotechnology Information website, you will find many articles from as early as 1984 about how our companion animals positively affect our health. Nursing Research published a report called, “Physiological effects of human/companion animal bonding”, in which they stated (among other things) that “the decreases in both systolic and diastolic blood pressure that occur during petting a dog with whom a companion bond has been established parallel the relaxation effect of quiet reading”.
Dogs And Heart Health
So, you’re sitting on the couch watching your favourite show, munching on your favourite snack, and the dog wanders up with his leash in his mouth. He’s bored and he wants to walk. You grudgingly point the remote towards the TV, press the off button, and groan as you lift yourself out of your chair. You might not realize it or even appreciate the fact that your dog is making you healthier, but he is.
According to a study by the Life Science Division of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California walking briskly can lower the risk of high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure – all factors of heart disease and stroke.
“But, my dog’s a sniffer; he doesn’t walk all that fast,” you might reply.
And that might be true. But just the action of him getting you off that couch and away from the mindless snacking of empty calories has added activity and probably years to your life.
Dogs And Mental Health
You’ve been on your computer for an hour or so, scrolling through Facebook, leaving comments on your friends’ pages, reading news articles (both local and worldwide) and you can almost feel the positive energy drain from your body. There’s just so much negativity in that virtual world. So, you turn the darn thing off and sit back. In the real world, your dog, who has been sleeping on the floor by your chair, looks up. His big brown eyes are wondering what you’re going to do next, and if there’s anything he can do for you. It’s almost as if he’s trying to will your good feelings back. After a few seconds, he stands and puts his head in your lap. He seems to know that if you pet him, you will feel better.
But can your dog really know that? Is your dog really that empathetic?
According to Stanley Coren, PhD., DSc., FRSC, your dog does care if you’re unhappy. A study to see if dogs really had empathy, conducted by Deborah Custance and Jennifer Mayer, two psychologists from Goldsmiths College in London, uncovered that our dogs can show empathy and sympathy, much like that of a young human child.
So, what do you do now? You really don’t feel like going back on the computer. Outside looks more inviting than it did before. Your dog follows you to the door and wags his tail as you get his leash.
Down the street and through the trails you and your dog meet up with other people. Some just pass by and nod; others ask how you’re doing and carry on. Then you meet up with other dogs and their parents. A few you’ve seen before; you also meet new friends. The point is, as you carry on you’re step gets a little lighter. By the time the walk is done you’re feeling so much better than you did in that virtual world.
So, not only did your dog raise your spirits at home, he gave you the opportunity to get outside, get some fresh air, exercise and socialize with real, like-minded people and their dogs.
Now, one might argue that while your dog definitely gave you the opportunity to feel better, most of the time you aren’t really seriously depressed, so the question begs to be answered: Do dogs help with more severe mental and emotional problems?
Dogs And Depression
According to Therese Borchard, mental health awareness advocate and founder of Project Hope & Beyond, dogs do help with depression:
· They provide unconditional love.
· We calm down when see and touch our dogs.
· They are a pleasant distraction that take us out of our own heads.
· They force us to think about things other than ourselves.
· They give us purpose (if you have a dog you’re not sleeping in until noon).
Dogs And Loneliness
In 2006, the Associated Press reported that dogs can ease loneliness better than humans. This statement was made, based on a study done in St. Louis that was comprised of three nursing homes. This study included seniors who had said they wanted visits from dogs. The seniors were then split into two groups: one-on-one dog visits and one dog shared to a group. It was expected that those who were sharing the dog with others would benefit the most from the extra socialization, but were surprised to learn that it was the one senior/one dog group that said their lonely feelings had substantially decreased; whereas, the group who shared the dog felt only slightly less lonely.
Dogs And Autism
In the simplest of terms, autism is a disorder that hinders how someone can interact with others around them. Organizations like the National Service Dogs in Canada have been training Golden Retriever and Labrador dogs since 1996. They have placed hundreds of service dogs across Canada and have helped other organizations around the world with their own autism programs.
“That’s great,” you say, “but how do dogs help with autism?”
According to NSD’s site, there are three benefits to having a service dog:
1. Those with autism often have trouble with new environments and will act out. The service dog provides something familiar since the dog is a constant in their lives, giving them a more positive experience.
2. Because children with autism tend to bolt and have no concept of danger, the dog can act as an anchor when they are tethered together.
3. The service dogs provide opportunities to socialize. Families with autistic members tend to get out more and the service dog promotes conversation and encourages the autistic person to talk about their dogs.
So, as you can see, the reasons behind having dogs in our lives go far deeper than most long-time dog owners realize. Dogs not only fill space in an empty house; they also unselfishly provide physical and mental support to the very young and the very old and everyone in between.