I believe that people with dogs are for the most part physically and emotionally healthier than people without dogs. A quick Internet search will tell you as much. One can find dozens of studies proving that interacting with dogs can lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, strengthen the heart and release oxytocin.
The number of scientifically proven health benefits of pet ownership is rising faster than the number of chew toys strewn around your house. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
Health pluses aren’t confined to the result of the extra exercise you get walking your dog or playing hide-and-seek with your cat. The bond that you and your pet develop is also part of the equation. “Owning a pet gives you a sense of purpose and belonging that can increase feelings of positivity and lower stress levels, all of which translates to health benefits,” says Allen McConnell, PhD, a psychology professor at Miami University.
One Japanese study found pet owners made 30 percent fewer visits to doctors. An Australian study of 6000 people showed that owners of dogs and other pets had lower cholesterol, blood pressure and heart-attack risk compared with people who didn’t have pets. In a study at the State University of New York at Buffalo, women asked to solve a math equation with their dogs nearby experienced less stress than women who worked near a human pal.
“When you interact with a friendly animal, your blood pressure lowers and your muscles relax,” explains Stanley Coren, PhD, a psychology professor and neuropsychological researcher at the University of British Columbia who has published nine books on the connection between people and animals.
It’s not just the feel of soft fur that calms us: Stroking a pet snake can bring down its owner’s blood pressure and heart rate, according to a study in the Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease. “People forget how important touch is — it can establish love and comfort,” says Dr. Coren.
Every dog person you meet can list dozens of personal benefits as well. Here are four of mine:
Dogs connect us with nature.
To say that dogs connect us with the natural world is to state the obvious. They are grounded, four-legged descendants of wolves who need exercise and therefore ideally to be taken on walks. What seems no longer obvious to many humans is how healing, vibrant and wondrous this natural world is. Dogs make sure constantly to remind us of that world.
In Eastern systems of medicine, all phenomena of the universe are comprised of various ratios of elements, such as earth, water, fire, wind, air, ether, wood or metal. What better way to keep yourself healthy and in tune than to commune with the elements with your wolf-descendant companion?
When I walk the trails of the Hudson Valley with my dog friends, I always made a point to acknowledge the water element — present in the form of the mountain streams, or the dew on the morning grasses, or the mists rising off the mighty Hudson on foggy days; or the fire element, present in the mighty sun; and of course earth, which my white dog liked to roll in and then shake off onto me. I make it a point to fully breathe in the air — there is nothing like Catskill mountain air — and feel the wind metaphorically blow away some of my more cumbersome thoughts. Mother Nature can be the most potent of healers. Communicating with another species teaches us how to listen to the unspoken.
Is it necessary to have a dog in order to connect with nature? Obviously it’s not an absolute requirement. Walking with a dog is more fun than walking without one. And for those of us who aren’t naturally outdoors-oriented, having a dog is the perfect impetus to become so. I was a bona-fide city girl when I adopted my first dog.
The idea of willingly stepping out into the rain or snow was as foreign to me as swan-diving off a cliff. But now, because of my dogs, I’ve experienced the vibrant healing properties of rain — a veritable cleansing from the heavens — and the stark, acute beauty of snow. To witness the stars on a sub-zero Catskill mountain winter night, and to experience that absolute time-has-stopped silence is to feel you are taking part in the stillness that precedes great bursts of creation. Anyone who found themselves out in one of the snowstorms with their dogs this past winter will know what I mean. And breathing in all that winter air? No wonder we have such strong lungs.
Dogs offer love, sweet love.
This is another statement which needs no justification. With a dog, you have at your side a being who loves you unconditionally; who forgives, again and again, without hesitation, all your human flaws and foibles; who thinks everything you do and say is a cause for leaps, bounds, twirls, and celebration; and who virtually beams at you with love.
Dog love is a balm, an elixir, a constant stream of positive energy. Is it any wonder, then, that dog people are healthier? When you are in the presence of love and acceptance, you are in a vibration of healing. You are in a state of mind that cultivates wellness. Stillness, harmony, inner peace: these are the internal places from which spontaneous healing can occur. And if you don’t believe in such things as spontaneous healing, then suffice to say that these are places from which wise decisions can be made about your own healthcare.
Because dogs know us better than we know ourselves, dogs can tall us who we are.
Most of us have heard stories about dogs that have the ability to sniff out cancerous tumors and/or warn their human companions about impending strokes, seizures and heart attacks. There are psychiatric-service dogs specifically trained to detect chemical and cyclical shifts in bipolar humans. There are dogs trained to arouse traumatized humans from “fear paralysis” (generally with a generous, enthusiastic and slobbering facial lick). There are dogs trained to encourage (again, with their irresistible doggy enthusiasm) their clinically depressed humans to complete the seemingly gargantuan task of simply getting out of bed. And there dogs that provide emotional assistance and comfort, dogs whose mere solid presence helps humans with PTSD and anxiety disorders cope with the stresses of life. The list of tasks a service dog can perform (as well as the shifting legal definitions of service dogs versus emotional-support dogs versus emotional-assistance dogs) goes on and on.
Even a quote-unquote untrained dog can detect simple day-to-day imbalances. I’ve heard stories of dogs placing their paws on key acupressure points to calm their humans down. I’ve heard of dogs poking with their snouts areas of the body in need of healing.
Whenever my former husband and I used to argue, our dog Wallace would step between us and bark in a very insistent and authoritative manner. We used to call him our “referee.” Wallace always seemed to know precisely when our arguments had crossed that fine line from constructive disagreement into petty, vindictive nonsense. To use a service-dog term, Wallace’s barks provided a reality affirmation which pulled us out of the dynamics of the argument and back into the moment. (For the record, Wallace always seemed immensely pleased with himself when to his calls of “foul” were heeded.)
My second dog Chloe could always tell when I had spent too much time at my computer. She could tell when my mental state was about to shift into one of despair or frustration. (Dogs who cohabitate with full-time writers seem to have that special skill.) She was my mood-o-meter.
Chloe and I communicated through hand signals, eye movements, body language. After a few years of cohabitating we were like any old married couple. We could read each other’s minds. One friend of mine quipped that having human children is one long experiment in being misunderstood. To be able to understand another being without words taught me to trust my instincts more. Taught me to listen.
On those bad writing days when I couldn’t seem to construct even a single coherent or cohesive sentence and would be on the verge of abandoning my novel altogether, Chloe would come over and nudge me with her snout, look at me with her sweet amber eyes, and smile with her pink dog-smile. She would be telling me without words that it was time to go for a walk, time to pull away from the world of fiction and step into the world of matter, the real world, with its earth and air and sky. Where the healing and rejuvenation could take place.
Think of the daemon concept in the Philip Pullman novels (Wikipedia defines dæmons as “the external physical manifestation of a person’s inner self that takes the form of an animal”). I feel that dogs often serve the same function if we are wise enough to pay attention to them. They have ways of letting you know if you are out of balance. Our job, as with all things, is to be still and listen.
Walk a path with the wind, earth, water and space, and allow the natural world to heal you. Walk the path to healing with someone who shows you who you are, how you are feeling.
The main — actually, the very — reason I moved to Ulster County more than ten years ago was to accommodate the needs of my first dog, Wallace. As an exuberant, energetic and extremely feisty bird-dog mix, Wallace required at least four hours per day of galloping at top speed before he would even become remotely tired. My then-husband and I lived in New York City at that point, and we quickly realized that we were putting so much time and effort into researching, transporting ourselves to, and finding hiking trails that we might as well find a country cottage. So we did. For the dog.
Back then, my friends used to tease us about our herculean efforts to meet the dog’s needs. In hindsight, I suspect that the dog thought he was accommodating our needs. As in: my job as the only grounded and sane creature in this equation is to get these uptight city people out of New York City and into the woods; otherwise they will die young of stress-induced illnesses or heart attacks.
Wallace was right, of course. Dogs always are.
Dogs provide laughter, the best medicine.
Feeling blue and imbalanced? Take a trip to the dog park. Experience the exhilaration of watching a group of happy four-leggeds romp and play. Or tickle your new puppy on the belly and giggle as you watch her try to shimmy out of reach. Or simply pause and admire the august effort of your dear, aging, arthritic dog as he gracelessly settles himself onto his bed with a grunt, no longer as limber as he once was. We smile.
As Norman Cousins illustrated in his groundbreaking book Anatomy of an Illness, we have the capacity literally to laugh our way through any illness, even cancer. And dogs are always happy to help in that regard.