Live Like Royalty: The Many Health Benefits of Dogs, Man's Best Friend

Dog-given benefits are not limited to the physical; their stimulus on a person's mental contentment is equally discernible. Psychologists at Miami University and St. Louis University found the emotional benefits pet owners receive from animal companions could be the equal of a human friendship. They factored variables such as depression, loneliness, illness, self-esteem, and activity levels, finding that participants with pets scored far better overall, enjoying measurably higher self-esteem and less loneliness. The researchers hastened to point out that study subjects were not stereotypical dog or cat loners. "We repeatedly observed evidence that people who enjoyed greater benefits from their pets also were closer to other important people in their lives," they wrote, "and received more support from them, not less."

And the health advantages a dog offers are not restricted to ownership either. Canines are widely employed in therapeutic situations at hospitals, psychiatric venues, prisons, nursing homes, and schools to offer temporary stress management. Dogs are increasingly present in waiting rooms -- a practice that a study from the University of Pittsburgh confirmed reduced annoyance and irritation in medical patients. Their number showed a wandering pooch reduces pain (23 percent) and emotional distress (32 percent) among patients. This is a logical extension of other, more accepted, roles that therapy-dogs provide, such as the well-documented programs that introduce dogs into nursing homes and hospital wards, providing temporary comfort and distraction for patients suffering all form of maladies.

In the past couple of years, a lot of science has focused on the effect dogs have on children with autism. In Canada, Dr. Sonia Lupien co-authored one such study in conjunction with the Université de Montréal. "We found that among most autistic children, levels of stress hormones dropped significantly when a dog became part of the family," she wrote. "In those cases, parents reported dramatic improvements in their child's behavior." The study involved a relatively small sample size of 42 children, but the majority showed significant improvements. "Before having the dog, parents reported an average of 33 problematic behaviors, compared with only 22 when the dog was present," Lupien wrote. This has encouraged other institutions, including the University of Texas, to launch similar studies into the widening use of "Autism Dogs" (a recognized category of Service Dog) in that beleaguered community.

Another therapeutic arena where dogs are found is among traumatized military veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The popular image is of a dog aiding a physically disabled veteran, retrieving dropped items, opening and closing doors, turning light switches on or off, carrying items, or alerting someone in case of an emergency. These dogs, by nature, lend their masters a friend and positive mindset too. Now, new breeds are trained specifically for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They become skilled at spotting signs of stress, nervousness, or angst, responding by licking, cuddling, or demanding to be petted. The dogs refocus attention to themselves, coaxing veterans out of their consuming anxiety and making them aware of the temporary fixation. The heartening stories of these special dogs are legion.

I find myself to be anecdotal evidence. Every day at noon, Sultan, a black Labrador, fetches me (including weekends, refusing to acknowledge the concept of a day off) for a daily walk. At that point, I dutifully stop whatever I am doing to indulge in an invigorating break outdoors for my body and mind. The walk usually lasts 30 minutes, encompassing hills and the occasional rabbit or squirrel chase. The routine has become my reset button, and I return to my desk refreshed by a sense of serenity only afforded by nature.

Even if scientific proof were lacking, people intuitively understand the benefits dogs have on their human companions. As author and essayist Gene Hill insightfully quipped, "Whoever said you can't buy happiness forgot little puppies."

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Martin Mulcahey is a freelance writer and researcher based in Colorado.

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