Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A therapy dog overcomes her own fear and helps young patients gain invaluable insights.
Holly looked down into the swimming pool, paws extended over the edge, intently watching as her ball on a rope floated away. Head and shoulders thrust forward, she wanted desperately to retrieve it, but not at the risk of leaping into the air with an uncertain landing. The adolescents of 2 South called, “Holly, get it!” She had a strong prey drive, and would chase anything moving: a leaf, a ball, a bird, a squirrel (her favorite) or my slipper tossed across the room. She rocked precariously on the ledge as if she was about to let go and take the plunge. But then she backed up, and looked at me with that helpless stare.
It was summer now; the days were warm, and the outdoor swimming pool of the psychiatric hospital was open. Gail, the recreational therapist, invited me to conduct animal-assisted therapy sessions at the pool instead of in the hospital, and I accepted these invitations gladly. After all, Holly was more than just a therapy dog. She was a Retriever, bred to leap into ice-cold streams or lakes; mouth the bird shot out of the sky without injuring a single feather; swim to the shore and carry it to her companion, the hunter, presenting an unscathed bird. I had a water dog.
With a swimsuit underneath my slacks and a blue UCLA jacket, I came fully prepared to get wet along with Holly. Gail—whistle on a lanyard around her neck—looked like a lifeguard when she met us on the pool deck. The kids were already splashing around, some playing volleyball with a freedom of movement they didn’t show inside the walls of the hospital. The water seemed to calm and soothe them.
When I unhooked Holly’s collar with its jangling tags and untied her blue-and-gold UCLA scarf, her behavior also changed. She was no longer the calm therapy dog who worked in adolescent psychiatry. Excited, she ran joyous “victory laps” around the pool. Removing her “uniform” signaled that she was off duty, no longer a working dog. The sight and sounds of water added to her frenzy, and I had to hold onto her with both hands.
UCLA People-Animal Connection director, K.C., always concerned about safety issues, warned that the kids couldn’t be in the water at the same time as the dog. She recalled nearly drowning when a swimming dog accidentally placed a paw on her shoulder, pulling her underwater. When I made the disappointing announcement, the kids groaned and booed. “I want to swim with Holly,” yelled Jason, a 10-year-old with attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity, as he circled the pool in loud protest. I had to be as creative as possible to make the session work.
I asked the teenagers to wait on the steps of the pool, where each would have a turn to throw a ball attached to a rope as far as they could into the water. Holly was to swim out and retrieve it, hold it in her mouth, then swim back and return it to the thrower. Eddie tossed the first ball; the wiry 11-year-old was so nervous about being first that he dropped the rope behind him twice before he finally figured out how to swing it in the air and hurl it forward. The ball landed at the deep end of the pool. Good throw!
Holly never took her eyes off it. I released her and gave the signal, “Holly, get it!” She raced down the steps, pushed off the last one and, treading smoothly through the pool’s blue water, reached the floating ball. She mouthed the rope attached to it, and with the ball dangling, turned back toward Eddie, holding onto her prey without so much as a splash.
“Look at her feet—she swims like a duck,” he called, watching her glide through the water. Reaching the steps, she dropped the ball into his waiting hand. Everyone applauded. Eddie smiled proudly at his accomplishment. Most of the kids had never seen a Retriever’s webbed feet gliding through the water with the ease and grace of an amphibian. “She was born to swim,” I said. But not in a pool!
At the beach, Holly would race from the sand into the surf chasing her yellow tennis ball, and when her feet could no longer touch bottom, she would propel those athletic legs through the water like paddles. Undaunted by turbulent tides, she would disappear under a crashing wave and surface again, never losing track of her prize. She would reach for it with her mouth, turn and swim back to me, drop it into my hand, and then stand in the shallow water, poised for the next throw.
When she started pool retrievals, she had to learn to use the concrete steps to get out. Initially, she would swim in circles, growing tired as she searched for the non-existent shoreline. The kids would sit on the steps calling, “Holly, here,” and she soon discovered which way was out.
But the one activity that still eluded her was jumping off the ledge of the pool, a drop of several feet, into the water. Now, she stood there staring as the ball drifted away, while we all yelled in chorus, “Holly, jump!” She turned to look at me, her eyes asking for help with this dilemma.
Holly looked to me for everything she wanted. I was the keeper of her ball, toys, food and water, her walks, her comfort or discomfort, her freedom or confinement. I was responsible for her survival. If she hurt her paw, she would hold it up and look at me pathetically. It was not surprising that as the bobbing ball moved farther away from her, she stared hard at me. But this time, I did not help her. She would have to jump into the pool and retrieve it for herself. She had to face her fears just like the rest of us.
In adolescent psychiatry, fear was a powerful motivator. Angry and defiant, 12-year-old Patty usually sauntered into group sessions ready for battle, fists clenched and poised to kick anyone in her way. She would be removed within minutes of her tirade, fighting and swearing at the staff as she was taken back to her room. She was never present long enough to interact with Holly Go Lightly, the canine therapist. Typically, Patty hid away, avoiding all social contact.
But in the swimming pool, Patty took on a different demeanor. Floating on her back, isolated from the group, she appeared peaceful, without “oppositional defiance,” as her behaviors were described in clinical reports: standing when told to sit and throwing her books on the floor when asked to open one. The water was therapeutic for her. There was freedom here. She didn’t show the aggression that had landed her in a psychiatric residential setting.
Patty had been expelled from public school and labeled as having a “conduct disorder” because she fought with everyone and incited brawls on the school playground. In class and in therapy, she refused to follow rules and procedures, walking out and spewing obscenities at her teachers and therapists alike.
While Holly stood at the edge of the pool testing her confidence, I seized the opportunity to talk with the group about being afraid. They knew about fear—Patty especially. I learned that she had suffered physical abuse from the man her mother lived with. Patty’s mother, who was unable to control her behavior, described her simply as a “bad kid.” Child Protective Services finally removed her from the home and, since she was out of control, referred her for psychiatric evaluation and treatment. With nowhere to go, and little change in her behavior, she was still in residence at the hospital.
I didn’t ask them to talk about what made them afraid. My technique was always to use Holly as the facilitator, keeping the focus on the child’s relationship with the dog.
“How can we help Holly overcome her fear of jumping into the pool?” I asked. Several children spoke up. Fifteen-year-old Alan said, “Throw her in … she’ll get over it.” An older girl, Barbara, about l7, said, “No, just pet her and be kind to her, and she’ll act brave.” Unknowingly, they were talking about how they dealt with their own demons. Alan showed bravado, suppressing any doubts or anxieties he might feel; it was difficult to relate to him, so protective was his cover. Barbara was withdrawn. She needed special attention before she would engage in most activities. She did little on her own without someone to encourage her.
Patty spoke for herself.
“Well, we need to show her that it’s safe.” This was an answer made in heaven, and coming from this child, it was profound. I jumped at the chance to use it.
“How can we show her it’s safe?” I asked.
“She can watch me,” she said, and in that instant, the young girl stood next to Holly at the edge of the pool and leaped into the air as if from a diving board, coming down feet first, straight into the water, splashing everyone around her. Now she began paddling about, watching the dog’s reaction. Holly just stared.
One at a time, the other kids followed Patty’s lead, showing Holly how it was done, until the entire group of nine children had landed in the pool and were splashing and thrashing around in the water. Some of them swam back and forth in front of Holly, calling her name. The Retriever inched forward, paws hanging over the edge. Still, she hesitated.
They began calling in unison: “Holly, jump! Holly, jump!” Patty grabbed the roped ball, threw it across the pool and swam after it, modeling for Holly what she was supposed to do, while the kids continued chanting. Holly leaned over and stared straight down as if she was measuring the distance of the drop into the water. She was almost in, and they continued to coax her.
It had become a group project, and it was thrilling to see these children, usually isolated and depressed, now smiling and calling and encouraging this hesitant and fearful dog to take the risk —to let go. They were working together as a group. The therapist was speechless. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it. Not only was Patty part of the group effort, she was leading it. Socialization was the primary goal for these teenagers, and they were achieving it.
Finally, Holly could wait no longer. She let go of the safety of her concrete perch and, like a bird leaving the nest, dove into the air and hit the water with a resounding splash. She sailed after her ball as if it were alive. The kids cheered. The staff cheered. Even the pool manager cheered.
Holly captured the prey, the object of her courage, scooped it up with her mouth, and headed toward the steps of the pool, where Patty now sat waiting for her. She released the ball into Patty’s hand, following the protocol of retrieving to the thrower. In those few moments, this child had become the leader of the pack. Holly flashed her famous Golden grin as if she knew she had fulfilled her legacy. She had conquered her fear of leaping from a high ground into a body of water, a skill that all working Retrievers must have. I underlined this occasion.
“You taught her not to be afraid,” I called out to the group. Every child smiled with pride.
And then I looked at Patty, sitting on the steps, hair soaked and face glowing. Her arms were wrapped tightly around the wet dog’s neck, and she nuzzled against Holly’s head.
I said directly to her, “And you showed her how to do it—to just let go and trust the water.”
“Yes,” she smiled, “I showed her it was safe.” Patty turned and kissed the top of Holly’s head, right on what I always called her “smart bump.” The kids splashed their way over to the pair and proceeded to pet and hug the dog, telling her how brave she had been. There was lots of chatter and laughter and celebration. We would all remember this day.
The kids from 2 South had become empowered by the simple act of bravery by an animal, paired with the cooperative effort of the group. The water was a metaphor for facing their fears. In helping Holly let go and jump, perhaps they would find their own courage.
After that day, the therapy dog was willing to jump into the pool without all of the hullabaloo. Just the throw of her beloved tennis ball and the words, “Holly, jump!” and she would leap into the water with confidence.
Patty left her room to come to all of our therapy sessions in the hospital or at the pool, to check on Holly. She needed to make sure that Holly was no longer nervous or afraid.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
No-fee housesitting is a boon for the adventurous animal lover.
Dot, my new roommate, and I just returned from a walk in the woods around the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. While I stumbled over roots, Dot reveled in the fresh smells of a muddy creek bed, hid behind me when approached by a large dog and snuffled with delight through a pile of pine needles.
Dot is a 10-pound Jack Russell named for the single brown splotch on her right hip. I moved into her home two weeks ago, settling in for a six-month stay. Her people—Shari and Mark—are exploring India and I’m occupying their house while they’re away as part of a year-long house-sitting adventure, moving around the country in search of a permanent location.
It’s a no-cash exchange that suits all of us. I get to stay in their lovely home with its wraparound porch and wood-burning stove while becoming more familiar with this part of the country. They can rest easy knowing that their property and companion animals are well cared for. Best of all, Dot and her three feline buddies are able to remain at home in familiar surroundings.
We’re part of the new sharing economy energized by the Internet. Sure, house-swapping has been around for decades, but the Internet allows homeowners and house sitters to connect much more easily. The desire for in-home pet care is the major factor driving the trend.
“The most important thing to most homeowners is that they have happy pets cared for at home,” says Andy Peck, founder of the London-based TrustedHouseSitters.com, one of the websites I’ve used to find assignments. “Eighty percent of the people looking for a house sitter have pets. More and more people don’t want to use kennels.
“It’s a win for both parties. The sitter goes the extra mile—it’s not liking asking a reluctant nephew to do the job. And a lot of people genuinely love looking after pets while having a ‘staycation’ in a great place, a vacation where they can live like a local.”
North Carolina was my third house-sitting assignment in 2014. I spent 10 weeks in the spring in Bethesda, Md., and two months during the summer in Santa Barbara, Cal. After talking with Shari via Skype, I drove from Bethesda to Chapel Hill to meet her and her husband. In-person meetings aren’t necessarily the norm; Peck says that between Skype interviews and reference checks, many homeowners know more about their house sitters than they know about their neighbors. But in my case, the visit sealed the deal, primarily because Dot took to me at once. Within days of my arrival, she was giving me a nightly signal that it was time for us to repair to the bedroom, where she sleeps in a bed next to mine.
References definitely play a part. On TrustedHouseSitters.com, for example, they’re sent directly from the homeowner to the website; the sitter doesn’t have the opportunity to modify them. Some sitters also provide police background checks. However they’re handled, responsibility for checking references belongs solely to the homeowners, and snafus are not unknown. A sitter or homeowner can cancel at the last minute, leaving both parties in the lurch.
Some match-ups are better than others. I read listings carefully, looking for clues to the homeowner’s personality and expectations. One listing, for example, sought a sitter with an “alpha personality” to deal with their dogs. Not me! And sometimes, it’s the homeowners who are unreliable, as a friend discovered when she accepted a month-long assignment and the electricity was turned off for non-payment the first week she was there.
Assignments range from a few days to a few weeks, or as long as a year, and the listings are often mini-biographies that, though brief, reflect the homeowners’ love of their dogs.
“We are in our very early 70s and would like to go to the UK to celebrate our 50th wedding anniversary with friends and family,” wrote a French couple recently, looking for house sitters for a week. “Both of our dogs are rescue dogs and we are reluctant to place them in kennels. … We live in a large renovated farmhouse with pool. No neighbors, but not isolated.”
Another couple wrote: “We live in Southwest Calgary, about a half hour from the downtown core. We are looking for someone to feed our dogs and give them lots of attention as well as take care of our home, water plants, etc.”
That listing (which, by the way, also mentioned wi-fi, cable television, a home gym and an infrared sauna as well as proximity to ski areas) included pictures of a doleful English bulldog, Ginger, and a very perky Coton de Tulear named Willow. Browsing the pet photos alone is enough to make me smile.
House sitters and homeowners alike tend to be baby boomers who want to indulge their lust for travel, says Peck. These no-fee house-sitting arrangements significantly cut the costs of travel for both, allowing them to fulfill their dreams of traveling during retirement. Not to mention that some assignments involve staying in luxurious properties—sometimes quite decadent luxury.
Ocean-view estates in Costa Rica; country mansions in Great Britain; and apartments in New York, London, Paris and San Francisco are frequently among the thousand-plus listings in 60 countries on TrustedHouseSitters.com and other sites. There are always lots of listings for Australia, New Zealand and Canada; house sitters just have to keep local weather in mind. Australians flee their country during its torrid summers, while Canada has the most listings during the winter months (great if you’re a skier).
Everyone whose home I’ve cared for has introduced me to friends and neighbors. Interacting with locals makes for a more personal experience, sometimes one that’s life-changing.
“We got a letter from a widow who said she decided she could travel on her own as a house sitter because she would have the companionship of the homeowner’s dog,” Peck recalls. “She was out walking the dog and got invited around for coffee with a neighbor—they are now romantic partners. She found love through housesitting.”
News: Guest Posts
Homelessness is an ongoing issue around the world. In the U.S. it is estimated that 3.5 million people are homeless. The number of homeless with pets is estimated to be in the 5-25 percent range depending on the area of the country. Pets of the Homeless was instrumental in bringing the issue to the forefront as evident by the number of other agencies that are now taking a proactive step to help.
Most people do not realize that over 76 percent of homeless have a physical disability, a developmental disability, have HIV/AIDS or have a mental illness and/or a substance abuse problem. The rest are just down on their luck. The cycle to get out of homelessness is very difficult.
When faced with the possibility of homelessness, many have to decide if they will start this journey with their pet or give it up. The only thing they may have left is the unconditional love the pet offers and companionship when no one else will interact. The pet is nonjudgmental and often provides protection. The problems homeless with pets face can be insurmountable: most homeless shelters won’t allow pets; it’s hard to get and store pet food; and there are limited resources for veterinary care.
In 2006, I saw a need and developed a system in which people could donate pet food without having to interact with homeless people who had pets. Pet businesses could be socially responsible and help by becoming a collection site. The donations of pet food are delivered to a local food bank and distributed to low income and homeless with pets.
The nonprofit evolved to keep up with the needs of these pets. Today Pets of the Homeless offers not only pet food, but emergency veterinary care, wellness clinics and sleeping crates to homeless shelters. With limited funds, we initiated a program to vaccinate and spay/neuter healthy pets that were not seen at wellness clinics or altered during emergency care treatments.
Every day we receive calls from homeless that have a pet that is in trouble and they do not have the resources to take their suffering pet to a hospital. “Littles” was having tummy troubles. Her homeless owner thought she might have ingested rocks. The veterinarian performed an exams and an x-ray. The x-ray did not show anything foreign. Littles was given special food to help recover. Many other success stories can be found on Pets of the Homeless website.
Though not all 400 collection sites report the pounds of donations, Pets of the Homeless has recorded over 355 tons of pet food and supplies have gone to food banks and other agencies. The fair market value of these donations is over $1.4 million. We have spent over $276,000 on veterinary care, pet food and crates. Over 12,000 pets have been treated. During 2014, Pets of the Homeless served over 290 pets for emergency care. 19 of them required a repeat visit to the hospital. Wellness clinics saw and vaccinated over 1,200 pets and we paid for 45 spay/neuters. All expenses were paid with donations from individuals, companies, matching grants and funds from private foundations.
This year there has been a drop in the number of collection sites – likely due to the number of businesses closing their doors.
This year our goals include recruiting more collection sites in every state and in cities that have the largest homeless populations and camps; increase pet food donations (no pet should go hungry); increase awareness of the human-pet bond; provide services that support and honor that relationship for the homeless pet owner; support the positive emotional and physical influences pets provide their owners; cultivate fundraising; increase our grant requests; and bring responsiveness to homeless shelters about the Pets of the Homeless Crate Program. We ship sleeping crates to homeless shelters so pets of the homeless can sleep comfortably and safely next to their owners. This is an important first step to help the homeless get the services they require to end their homelessness and begin a new life with their companion pets. Fundraising is the primary source of revenue for our programs.
For more information visit: www.petsofthehomeless.org
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Room to Run in Shawnee, Kansas
Shawnee Mission Park is the largest in eastern Kansas (and one of the most visited in the state); at 1,600 acres, it’s more than twice the size of NYC’s Central Park. A multi-use recreational space, it provides room for diverse activities such as disc golf, archery, fishing (the lake is stocked) and lots of hiking and bike riding. And, oh yes, a 53-acre off-leash dog area.
The OLA is, of course, what grabbed my interest. It’s one of the largest in the nation, and so for size alone, it deserves attention in this column. But wait! It gets better. Not only do dog lovers have an ample trail-laced area for their own exercise, there’s also plenty of space for their dogs to frolic and romp. All that, plus a cove with access to a 120-acre lake to practice dog paddling and ball diving. On a hot summer day in Kansas, that must be a welcome relief to both wading humans and their dogs.
According to superintendent of parks Bill Maasen, Shawnee Mission Park was created by a bond initiative and opened in 1964. The off-leash dog area was developed roughly 15 years ago, at a time when dog parks were springing up across the land. Typical of many large OLAs, it is not fully fenced, so a good recall is must here, something that’s often mentioned in the rave online reviews. (Smaller dog parks and dog runs generally are fully fenced, but—depending on their location and proximity to roads—larger OLAs seldom are. As in this particular park, fencing tends to be concentrated near roadways and parking areas.)
The landscape includes prairie and woodland, and because it’s bordered by dense woods, there are sightings of deer aplenty. OLA-goers need to be watchful of their dogs and follow the rules, including the requirement that “dogs must be under the control and in view of their handler at all times.” A wise choice.
Maasen explained that they are undertaking improvements soon, including expanding the often-overflowing parking area by many new spaces and installing safer gates so dogs won’t be able to push them open and run out to the road. They also have a large accessibility project coming up that will provide more stable paving for the quarter-mile walkway to the lake, improving its navigability for those who use wheelchairs and other assistive devices.
As for the lakeshore itself, instead of sand or dirt, pavers are used in what is called keystone construction: they “lock” together like Lego tiles, with pea gravel in between. The hard surface makes it easier to keep a wet dog clean after a dip and protects paws from hot sand.
Being inured to a region where park users have to beg for any kind of maintenance whatsoever at our OLA, I’m blown away by the fact that the Shawnee one closes on Tuesdays from 5 to 9 am for weekly park maintenance. Other than that, the OLA has generous opening times: summer hours are from 5 am to 11 pm, with minor adjustments in winter.
Reviewing this Kansas landmark tempts me to take a “Pete Campbell” plunge. In one of the series’ final episodes, the Mad Men character was poised to trade an office on Madison Ave. for one in Wichita. For him, the carrot was access to a Learjet. For me, it would be to have a park with a management philosophy that recognizes the importance of providing generous open space for both us and our dogs, operated by people who see the wisdom of meeting the needs of this important constituency.
To paraphrase another famous Kansan, “Toto, I have a feeling we are in Kansas,” and it feels good.
News: Guest Posts
With the Fourth of July right around the corner, I wanted to share some important tips to help dog owners keep their furry friends happy and healthy during this patriotic (yet loud) holiday!
Fireworks are fun. Scared dogs are not. Here are some tips so both you and your pup will have a sparkling and safe July Fourth:
Shelter Loud Noises: While fireworks may be entertaining and dazzling to us, for most dogs, the loud noises generated from large-scale firework displays to home lit bottle rockets can create anxiety and fear. Some common reactions to look for in your dog include: shaking, stress panting, putting their tail between their legs, bolting, hiding, and howling. To help relieve this anxiousness, owners can try to:
Mind the Exits: When hosting parties, or even when taking your dog with you to a party, always make sure exits and entrances are closed (doors, gates, fences, etc.). Dogs may wander out or if they are spooked, will bolt out any available exits. Some dogs have been known to even jump through windows when they are frightened. As always, make sure your dog is tagged in the event he or she finds a way to escape.
Comfort in the Chaos: Provide your dog with a favorite “spot” for them to go to at any time. Dogs like to be in the mix, but sometimes they don’t know where to be or know how to participate if a party gets too crowded. It’s nice to have a cozy spot for your dog to retreat to when they are over stimulated or tired, but can still see what’s going on so that they feel like they are part of the action. Dogs generally don’t like being locked up in a backroom, but for those that are more sensitive, placing them in a quiet room alone may be the best or only option.
Food Control: Make sure you have a no human food policy. Your dog will likely linger around and beg for scraps while you are cooking or while your guests are enjoying their meals. Most BBQ and other summertime favorites have too much sugar and fat and are made with ingredients that are harmful to dogs (like garlic, onions, grapes and chocolate). It’s best to tell guests not to feed the dog, and try to follow the rule yourself - no matter how big they make those puppy eyes!
Follow these tips to keep your pup safe during the summer festivities.
Easy Steps to Minimise Shedding
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Harvard study makes it official: dogs are good for us.
If you live with a dog, chances are you’re familiar with canine de-stressing techniques. Perhaps you’ve felt a wave of relief from burying your face in fur after a difficult day at work, or experienced a release of calming chemicals after being met with a particularly enthusiastic greeting. And maybe those daily dog walks have helped you shed a few pounds or led to some welcome social interactions with other people and their dogs. And doesn’t life seem to have more meaning because there’s a living creature depending on you?
To dog people, the emotional, physical and even spiritual benefits of canine relationships tend to be obvious. These benefits feel as real to us as the saliva-soaked tennis ball we’re holding in our hands. That’s why it can be so hard to understand why the non-dog world hasn’t caught on to all these life-altering advantages. Even worse is the fact that many people who have never lived with a dog seem to think we may be making all this up—that the only place these benefits exist is in our heads.
Science in Action
Thanks to a special report from Harvard Medical School (HMS), we now have something important to share with these nonbelievers—proof! Get Healthy, Get a Dog is the first publication to compile hundreds of research studies from around the world that document the physical and psychological benefits of dog ownership. Taken together, these studies provide the most complete picture yet of the many ways in which dogs enrich human life: from lower cholesterol and improved cardiovascular health to weight loss, companionship, defense against depression and longer lifespans.
“The most common reaction we’ve been getting from people about this report is that they are so grateful that someone has finally put into print what they’ve known intuitively all along,” said medical editor Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD, who supervises the Lifestyle Medicine Interest Group at HMS, teaches a college course on lifestyle medicine at the Harvard Extension School, and directs the Wellness Programs at the Spaulding Stroke Research and Recovery Institute, an HMS affiliate.
The 50-page report is the result of a collaboration between HMS and Angell Animal Medical Center, a leading veterinary hospital based in Boston. Get Healthy, Get a Dog approaches the dog/human relationship as a two-way street, so half of it is devoted to the human—what the dog does for the person—and half is devoted to the dog—what the person should do for the dog. Frates tackled the former, and Lisa Moses, VMD, who heads the Pain Management Service at Angell Animal Medical Center, covered the latter, which includes sections on nutrition, exercise, training and responsible pet ownership. Moses also makes a compelling case for adopting a dog rather than going to a breeder or pet store.
“We didn’t want to create the impression that a dog is some kind of tool for achieving better health,” says Moses in explaining the dual focus. “We wanted to emphasize that it’s the relationship that provides these benefits—it’s not the pet. And for that relationship to develop and be sustained, you have to do your part.”
Doing your part often means going for walks in the rain, sleet or snow, at all hours of the day and night. In fact, one of the primary health benefits of owning a dog is that it boosts your activity level. There have been about a dozen studies conducted on the link between dogs and human exercise, including one that compared 536 dog owners with 380 non-owners. Those with dogs were found to be fitter, thinner and less likely to have chronic health conditions, such as high blood pressure and diabetes. A study in Missouri that paired public housing residents with certified therapy dogs for five 20-minute walks a week found that participants lost an average of 14.4 pounds without changing their diets. (The report points out that most weight-loss programs and anti-obesity drug trails can’t boast such good results.)
Of course, the fact that regular exercise helps people lose weight and get healthy isn’t exactly breaking news. The insights come from the critical role the dog plays as a fitness partner—offering everything from enthusiastic encouragement to obnoxious pestering. Unlike a human partner, a dog is not going to suggest ducking out to a movie. “The dog support was always positive, while the human support could be positive (friends, family), negative (saboteurs) or inconsistent,” wrote Frates. Another reason that people tend to adhere to an exercise program if a dog is involved is the perception that the dog needs them. In one study, 72 percent of participants cited this as the reason they stuck to the activity schedule for the full 50 weeks of the trial.
“Sometimes people find that the dog becomes the excuse for taking care of themselves,” says Moses. “It may not be acceptable to them to be so self-oriented, but if it’s about the dog, then it’s okay.”
The American Heart Association (AHA) uncovered another piece of canine magic: a dog appears to help someone who is obese overcome his or her embarrassment about being seen in public doing physical activity.
It’s likely that increased exercise plus the calming effects of dogs (which we’ll get to later) contribute to lowering blood pressure. One study actually tested dog ownership as a treatment for high blood pressure. Thirty people with borderline hypertension were randomly assigned to either adopt a dog right away or defer adoption to a later date. After five months, the segment of new dog owners experienced significant declines in systolic pressure (the top number, which measures the highest arterial blood pressure). The group that had been asked to defer adoption experienced these same declines once they had taken their new dogs home and spent time with them. In 2013, the AHA went as far as to say that pet ownership “is a reasonable strategy for reducing heart disease risk.”
And there’s more good news on the cardiac front. A study of nearly 6,000 men and women in Australia found that dog owners of both sexes had lower triglyceride levels than non-owners, and male dog owners also had lower total cholesterol levels.
Beyond these formidable physical benefits are the psychological ones, which according to Frates “are hard to overstate.” Dogs make us feel less isolated. They pull us into a social world inhabited by other people walking other dogs. (Seventy percent of dog walks lead to at least one spoken interaction with a stranger.) And they help us meet the basic human need for companionship. Two large, long-term studies that followed people from childhood to old age found that those who were more engaged with others—whether those others were people or animals—lived longer. Those longer lives may also be more purposeful. A dog’s total dependency can make that person feel wanted and give life a sense of meaning.
Moses knows this phenomenon first hand. Her grandfather spent more than a decade as primary caretaker for his wife, who suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and cardiovascular disease. During all those years, he had a succession of dogs to care for—or was it the other way around? After his wife died, his beloved Terrier mix Lady succumbed to kidney failure. “At age 92, unbeknownst to us, he went out and adopted another dog,” Moses says. “Having a dog was the reason he got up in the morning. It was his entire life. He was a living testament to the power of the human/canine bond.”
There are other indicators that dogs are particularly helpful to older people. The HMS report cites a year-long study from Canada that found elderly dog owners to be more capable of performing daily activities, such as dressing and feeding themselves. This is likely because in attending to their animal companions, seniors are reminded to take care of themselves. They also have a structure in place, thanks to the need for regular pet meal times and walks, which reinforces their own self-care habits.
At the other end of the age spectrum, children learn important life skills from early bonding with the family dog. That bonding can lead to stronger human connections later in life, according to a Tufts University study, which also found that kids who’ve forged emotional connections to dogs have more empathy, feel more self assured and do better in social settings.
“How else would you get your kids to touch and love something?” asks Frates, the mother of two teenage sons. “For boys especially in this culture, there are very few acceptable ways of encouraging this type of bonding and intimacy.”
There is even evidence that exposure to a dog from infancy onward reduces the likelihood that even the most allergy-prone kids will develop problems. Only 19 percent of babies living with dogs developed pet allergies, compared to 33 percent of babies who grew up in dog-free homes, according to one study.
As those babies grow up and become college students, the dog benefits continue. Several psychological studies have found that college-age adults tend to find more stress relief in turning to their dogs than in seeking comfort from parents or siblings. Still other adults were found to shake off the blues just by thinking about their dogs … which brings us to the magic of oxytocin.
Having a dog can be like having your own a prescription for oxytocin with unlimited refills—except that rather than dispensing this drug, your dog incites you to release it. Also known as the “love,” “bliss,” and “bonding” hormone, oxytocin inspires positive feelings. It helps stave off depression and limit the release of the stress hormone cortisol. You can get an oxytocin infusion by petting your dog, by laughing at the silly things she does, and even by looking into her loving eyes, a conclusion confirmed by recent study
Dogs also offer an alternative to meditation sessions and yoga classes when it comes to learning the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Every dog walk is typically an exercise in experiencing the present moment: savoring an especially aromatic fire hydrant, having a satisfying roll in the grass or interacting with a new neighbor. Dogs put us more in touch with nature and help us put aside our worries about the future and regrets about the past to focus on the here and now.
While all the information contained in Get Healthy, Get a Dog has been meticulously reviewed and objectively compiled, Moses and Frates are hardly dispassionate observers. Both say their lives have been greatly enriched by their relationships with their dogs. They do, however, come from very different ends of the dog spectrum. Moses, who shares her home with a rescue named Rudy, describes her love of canines as developing “in utero.” This was due largely to the influence of her grandfather and the fact that he treated his Beagle mix, Friday, like one of the grandchildren.
Frates, on the other hand, was terrified of dogs after being bitten on the shoulder by a Doberman. The experience, which happened when she was eight years old, was so traumatizing that she spent the next three decades crossing the street to avoid close contact with a dog, even a little one. Finally, though, it wasn’t any particular dog who changed her mind, it was her commitment to health. As a physician specializing in lifestyle medicine, Frates thought she had all the bases covered—diet, exercise, meditation. But when she took a health and longevity quiz to determine her “real” age (as opposed to her chronological one), she was surprised that one of the questions concerned dog ownership.
Intrigued by the implications, she began to review the existing literature, much of which has been summarized in this special report. She also purchased a Goldendoodle she named Reesee, from a breeder in West Virginia. “Everything has been different for me since then,” Frates says, adding that she and Reesee are regular running buddies. “When we go running, she is so happy and I’m happy because she’s happy. You just appreciate the world in a much different way.”
Frates believes that if something like the Harvard Health Report had been available years ago, she would have explored the joys of dog ownership much sooner. Now, she hopes that the report will encourage other non-dog people to reconsider their position. “We’re hoping to encourage people to take the leap of getting to know a dog,” she says. “And perhaps we’ll also be able to encourage more dog adoptions—that’s a focus that Lisa brought to the project.”
That’s because the nonprofit Angell Animal Medical Center, where Moses works, is part MSPCA, the nation’s second oldest humane society, and has a very active adoption component. (Now that she realizes the situation for homeless dogs, Frates says she would adopt in the future.) Get Healthy, Get a Dog includes a section on “Adopting a Dog,” which provides information on determining the right breed for your home and suggestions on finding breed rescue groups and shelters. It also urges people to stay away from pet stores, where the dogs typically come from puppy mills.
Moses hopes readers will follow the report’s suggestions and reap the amazing benefits of dog ownership.
“Dogs are more important now than ever before,” she says. “Because people are living longer and so many live alone and don’t have kids. This is the moment for the human-animal bond.”
The report is available as a printed document, a PDF or both and can be purchased online at health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/get-healthy-get-a-dog.
News: Guest Posts
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We love talking about our dogs, showing off what they can do and introducing them to all of our friends. But that doesn't mean we want traces of them all over our homes. From slipping and scratching to chewing and slobbering, our furry friends can wreak havoc on our furniture, walls, throw pillows and accent pieces. So, many dog owners sacrifice form for function when it comes to design and decor. And the biggest sacrifice? Gorgeous floors.
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A design to fit your style.
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Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Study finds that some kids confide in their dogs more than their human siblings.
Anyone who grew up with animals knows that you develop a special relationship with your pets. For me, my cat was a willing (although sometimes not so willing!) playmate in all my games of make believe. But the child-animal bond may be even more significant than we realized. A new study out of the University of Cambridge found that, not only do these relationships have an impact on positive interpersonal behaviors, but for some kids, they are stronger than the bond they have with their siblings.
These findings are a result of PhD student Matt Cassels' analysis of data from the Toddlers Up Project, a ten year longitudinal study of children's social and emotional development, led by Professor Claire Hughes. The original research included a section on children's relationships with their pets, as well as a broad range of other data from the children, their parents, teachers, and siblings.
This made the data set unique because, while there are many studies on our relationship with pets, few used the same tool to compare children's relationships with pets with other human relationships, let alone over such a long period of time.
Matt hypothesized that strong pet relationships would make for happier children, but he found that animals create more than just smiles. The kids with solid animal bonds had a higher level of prosocial behavior, such as helping and sharing, than their peers. A subsection of the group, particularly girls and those whose pet was a dog, were even often more likely to confide in their pet than in their sibling.
Matt also found that children who had suffered adversity in their lives, such as bereavement, divorce, illness, or were from disadvantaged backgrounds, were more likely to have a stronger relationships with their pets than their peers, though they did less well academically and suffered more mental health problems.
Thanks to Professor Hughes' decision to include data points on pets in her study, there's a lot of interesting areas of research that can be done from the Toddlers Up Project. One area that Matt is interested in looking at next is the impact of pet deaths on children. I hope to see a lot more insights into the childhood side of the human-canine bond come out of this research!
Bark welcomes the news of an entertaining auction at Christie’s titled Best in Show which features an array of animal-inspired works by the master of Pop Art, Andy Warhol. The upcoming online only sale includes over 100 lots of silver gelatin prints, Polaroids, screenprints and drawings by Warhol. It’s a rare glimpse of the art and ephemera that inspired Andy’s life, and reflects his love of animals—cats, horses, cows, birds, and, of course, dogs. Enjoy the online catalog, bidding continues until May 5, 2015.
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