The bond we have with our dogs brings us emotional, mental and physical health benefits as well as unconditional love.
To see how far our understanding of the human-canine bond has come, we need to take a trip back to 1908. In January of that year, an article in The New York Times reported on the outcome of a military tribunal concerning one Colonel Deems and his dog Riley. According to the article, “The Retiring Board in solemn conclave has decided that the Colonel’s fondness for the little fox terrier that had the run of Fort Howard, Baltimore, was not evidence of mental derangement.”
The testimony against the officer was supposed to be quite damning. “It must not be forgotten that Riley jumped right up in the Colonel’s ample lap and kissed him squarely on the mouth,” reported one witness. “Did it scores of times. Once he so far forgot himself as to carry off one of the Colonel’s boots surreptitiously and the post commander had to hobble around his quarters for an hour with one foot bootless while his orderly searched for the No. 10.”
The tribunal also heard that the Colonel did nothing when his dog acted in “utter disregard of the seriousness of army life” by treating officers and enlisted men in exactly the same way. Fortunately, despite the so-called evidence, the tribunal concluded that “the dog was merely the target of the affection of a lonely army bachelor”, and sent Colonel Deems back to active duty.
The benefits are more than emotional
Our view of the human-canine bond has clearly changed quite a bit since that hearing over a century ago. We can’t imagine someone’s mental state being called into question simply because he or she showed affection to a dog, or accepted affection from the dog in return. Today, in fact, our view of the human-canine bond has changed to such a degree that we actually look at dogs as a means of promoting both the physical and mental health of the people they live with.
The strength of the human-canine bond has been known for a long time, but scientific evidence about how it works was first published only about 35 years ago, when a psychologist, Alan Beck of Purdue University, and a psychiatrist, Aaron Katcher of
the University of Pennsylvania, actually measured what happens physically when a person pets a friendly and familiar dog. They found that the person’s blood pressure lowered, the heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed – all signs of reduced stress. A study recently published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine not only confirmed these effects, but showed changes in blood chemistry demonstrating reduced amounts of stress-related hormones. It is interesting to note that these positive psychological effects work a lot faster than many drugs taken for stress, since they occurred only after five to 24 minutes of pleasantly interacting with the dog.
Can your dog help you live longer?
There is now a large amount of data confirming that dogs are good for your psychological health and may increase not only the quality of your life, but also your longevity. The benefits are not just short term but last well beyond the time that the dog is in the room, and the positive effects build up over time.
In one important study of 5,741 people conducted in Melbourne, Australia, researchers found that dog people had lower levels of blood pressure and cholesterol than those without a dog, even when both groups had the same poor lifestyles involving smoking and high-fat diets.
Dogs can help even if you have started to show evidence of heart problems. In an intriguing study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers followed more than 400 patients after they were released from hospital after having a heart attack. One year later, the patients who had dogs had a significantly higher survival rate than non-dog people. Their guess is that the affectionate bond and social support provided by the dogs was reducing their stress. This was significant, since stress is a major contributor to cardiovascular problems.
Keeping depression and anxiety at bay
Of course, stress is not the only problem facing us today. Up to 25% of people who go to general practitioners do so for depressive and anxiety disorders. Depression is actually considered to be much more disabling, both socially and even in physical functioning, than many chronic physical illnesses such as diabetes, arthritis and back pain.
Although depression can be caused by many factors, one of the most common is simply loneliness. People with inadequate social support can really benefit from the emotional bonds that animals provide. With the weakening of extended family ties, seniors are particularly at risk of becoming lonely, isolated and depressed. In one study, research showed that people 60 years of age or older who lived alone were four times more likely to be diagnosed as clinically depressed than those who lived alone but had a dog. There was also evidence that those with dogs required fewer medical services and felt much more satisfied with their lives.
Dogs are a natural “icebreaker”
The easy and relaxed relationship most people have with animals also brings another benefit to those living alone. People report that when they are out walking with their dogs, strangers are much more likely to stop and talk with them – mostly because there is a dog to say hello to, and people seem to want that moment of relaxed interaction with an animal. Take the case of Emma Cooper, aged 71, who had been living alone for nearly eight years after her husband died.
“I was out walking Surrey, my cocker spaniel, and this man stopped to give him a pat. He seemed nice and told me he used to have a blonde cocker spaniel just like Surrey. We started to talk about living with dogs and then stopped for a coffee. Well, one thing led to another and Bill and I got marred – once we found a clergyman who was willing to let a dog stand in as the best man!”