The Health Benefits of Having a Dog

Are dogs the ultimate health care companion?
By Jennifer Forbes, April 2016

They are funny, uplifting and sometimes seem to understand us in a way no other human can. Science is continuing to prove that the animals in our lives offer us much more than companionship. Simply by sharing our homes, pets can help ease our distress and protect us from allergies. Specially trained dogs can even sniff out developing diseases and warn us away from foods we should not eat. Here is a list of ways in which having a dog around can affect your health for the better.

GET STRESS-FREE SMILES

Having a dog to come home to at the end of a long day is proven to reduce stress and lower blood pressure.

As early as 2001, scientists realized that patients who owned dogs seemed to maintain lower blood pressure during times of mental stress as patients without dogs. Playing or petting a dog increases the levels of the happiness hormone oxytocin and decreases the levels of cortisol, which is responsible for feelings of stress thereby leading to a happier mood.

Ask any dog owner whether their dog makes them feel better and you will always get the same answer. More intelligent animals, such as dogs, spot changes in their human companion's emotional state and body language. A good cuddle will easily make you feel less anxious.

WAVE GOODBYE TO SNEEZES

Forget about the mess your dog makes and think about what they do for you and your family just by sharing your home: your kids will probably develop fewer allergies.

A recent study of 470 children produced evidence that growing up in households with dogs seemed to lessen the risk of developing allergies by up to 77%. It is thought that this is linked to the “hygiene hypothesis”- the concept that the bacteria carried by pets helps fire up the immune system while it is still getting established, making your kids better able to resist allergens they meet later in life.

Even if you have already got an allergy, pets can help! Amazingly, dogs can be trained to detect foods containing dangerous allergens. So-called “Peanut dogs”, for example, are trained to sniff out minute traces of peanuts.

KEEPS YOU COMPANY

We can feel incredibly strong emotional ties to our pets; they are our friends, our confidantes and they never judge our transgressions. People who find social interaction difficult may build valuable relationships with an animal.

Research has found that spending mere minutes each day petting or interacting with an animal increases the body's “feel-good” hormone, serotonin - a natural depression-fighting chemical. Having a dog may provide people with a sense of purpose and security which can be crucial to fighting mental health issues such as depression as well as providing routine.

This kind of interaction is good for all of us and is really powerful for older people experiencing loneliness and other difficulties. Walking a dog is regarded as a very social activity and may lead to conversations with other dog owners breaking down some of the social barriers that one might feel when alone.

LOVE YOUR PET, LOVE YOURSELF

Our pets make us feel better about ourselves. Dog owners are found to exhibit a number of improved psychological states that may help ease and prevent anxiety. This includes better self-esteem, less fearfulness and greater social support. Linked research identified the ability for pets to provide support and diminish the negativity caused by social rejection.

Especially in the case of people with psychiatric conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or anxiety disorders, dogs can learn to tell when their human companion is feeling anxious or paranoid.

KEEP YOUR HEART HEALTHY

Many different scientific studies have explored the relationship between heart disease and pet ownership with numerous beneficial effects being reported. For example, a major study of nearly 6,000 participants found that male dog owners have lower blood cholesterol (201 versus 206 mg/dL) and triglyceride levels (108 versus 125 mg/dL) than non-dog owners. Findings also indicate that pets can help us recover from heart attacks.

Further research in this area suggests that dog ownership can lead to a decrease in a person's heart rate and improve the hearts reactivity to stressful situations. In a study of 240 couples, half who owned a dog and half who did not, the dog owners had a significantly smaller increase in heart rate and a faster recovery in response to stress. It was even faster when the dog was physically in the room with them.

KEEPS YOU CALM

For those who might have issues with anxiety or ADHD, owning a dog might be just what you need. By providing jobs that are regularly conducted on a pet care schedule, like walking, grooming or feeding, will help those with ADHD learn to plan and be responsible whilst it being very rewarding.

High energy levels are commonly associated with ADHD and playing with a pet is an excellent way to release this excess energy as well as help them concentrate later in the day. This will in turn prove to boost their self-confidence as a dog will never criticize you for having too much energy!

WALK YOUR WAY TO FITNESS

Dogs need walking, right? So it may not come as a surprise that dog owners are more physically active. In the 2005 Michigan Behavioral Risk Factor Survey, the odds of obtaining at least 150 minutes walking time per week were 34% higher for dog walkers and the odds of doing any physical activity were 69% higher.

This increased activity has benefits throughout the body. Assuming that you walk regularly with your dog and at a brisk pace, this can lower blood pressure, cholesterol and even lessen the risk of diabetes and coronary heart disease as much as high intensity running can according to a study conducted at Berkeley, California.

Also, as dogs require regular exercising and encourage play, this keeps you active and moving which can prove to be extremely beneficial to those who might have issues with rheumatoid arthritis. By participating in regular exercise, this increases strength and flexibility, helps to maintain bone strength and keeps the joints loose.

INTERESTING FACTS

  • More than 71 million American households (62%) have at least one pet - a figure that is on the rise.
  • Even hardened criminals in prison have shown long-term changes in their behavior after interacting with dogs, many of them experiencing mutual affection for the first time.
  • Dog owners are more resilient to stressful events helping them avoid anxiety-related illnesses
  • Pet owners over the age of 56 make fewer visits to their doctors than those without pets.
  • Pet owners have been found to suffer with less minor illnesses, such as headaches, colds and hay fever.
  • Even the most highly stressed dog owners see their doctors 21% less than non-dog-owners.

HOW CAN DOGS HELP?

There are dogs out there every day using their natural talents, from their incredible sense of smell to their caring and protective nature which, with extensive training, can be harnessed effectively by the medical or assistance industries.

THE ULTIMATE GUARD DOG

Your dog's phenomenal sense of smell could one day save your life! After many circumstantial reports from pet owners, scientific studies have established the potential for dogs to sniff out cancer.

In one such study, a dog was trained to correctly identify prostate cancer from urine samples in 30 out of 33 cases. Similar studies with equally successful accurate scent detection rates have also been seen in lung cancer and breast cancer.

It is not necessarily even a tricky skill for dogs to learn. Within weeks, one scientific study showed that ordinary household dogs could be trained to “smell” cancer.

AUTISM ASSISTANCE DOGS

Autism assistance dogs are trained to provide support to those with autism and allow them to live a more independent life.

A fully trained autism dog can help people suffering with autism by introducing routines, reducing bolting behaviors, interrupting repetitive behaviors and helping a child with autism cope with unfamiliar surroundings.

A long-term study of these service dogs and their owners have demonstrated that there can be a significant increase in pro-social behavior, a decrease in self-absorption, fewer autistic behaviors and more socially appropriate behaviors.

SEVERE ALLERGY ALERT DOGS

Allergy dogs are trained to detect specific substances that can trigger someone to have an allergic reaction or to go into anaphylactic shock. One of the most commonly found allergy dogs are trained specifically to detect peanuts.

These 'Peanut dogs' use their incredible sense of smell to detect even the smallest quantities of the nut, whether it be raw, cooked, in oil, butter or dust, in order to prevent a life threatening allergic reaction.

According to a study conducted at Auburn University, 1/3 of a dog's brain is dedicated to scent and scent recognition, making them one of the most practical and accurate forms of scent detection around. An allergy detection dog needs to have 100% accuracy when completing their initial certification, as they need to be able to sniff out a single specific smell in amongst the huge number of smells around them and warn their owner.

ALZHEIMER DOGS

Ever had a conversation with your pet? You are not the only one!

Animals often seem able to draw people with dementia out of their internal world in a way that carers and other humans cannot. It has been shown that therapy with dogs can increase morale, eating habits and positively affect the overall health in people with Alzheimer's disease. Research at the University of California at Davis concluded that Alzheimer's patients suffer less stress and have fewer anxious outbursts if there is a dog or cat in their home.

These dogs are trained to perform tasks such as reminding their owner to take certain medications and to encourage them to eat, drink and sleep at regular intervals. They help maintain routine which can be crucial for those with dementia as well as encourage them to get out of the house to walk and exercise the dog, thereby increasing social interaction whilst providing silent support.

DIABETIC ALERT DOGS

Dogs have been trained to be able to smell a drop in a human's blood sugar, which is very important if you happen to be diabetic. It has been said that these dogs can sniff out these drops with 90% accuracy.

They are able to do this because when the body's blood sugar level changes the body's metabolism alters along with it, leading to changes in the way a person's sweat or breath smells. As dogs have a sense of smell that is, depending on the breed, between 1,000 - 10,000 times better than humans, this is fairly easy for a dog to detect.

PTSD DOGS

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that can be triggered by a traumatic event taking place. As discussed above, dogs have an amazing ability to calm people and reduce stress by increasing the production of the hormone serotonin.

These dogs are trained to provide a sense of security and calm the owner. They are taught to be able to identify certain traits, according to their future owner's needs. Training is separated into two areas called 'environmental assessment', such as paranoia and hallucinations, and 'signaling behaviors', including injurious behavior, guiding the owner away from a stressful situation or retrieving objects.

In fact, these dogs have proved to be so beneficial to PTSD sufferers, that there is now a team of 'Disaster Stress Relief Dogs' in the USA that are deployed after any major traumatic event to provide a comforting face and calming effect.

SEIZURE RESPONSE & ALERT DOGS

Seizure alert and response dogs are trained not only to respond to a seizure but sometimes, where possible, to predict them.

Seizure alert dogs are trained to predict an oncoming seizure and can then alert the owner who is then able to find somewhere that is safe for when it does eventually happen. There is a theory that these dogs can detect a seizure through a number of signals including micro expressions made by the owner, a change in the scent of an owner or sensing a disturbance in the electric field around them which can be caused by a seizure.

A seizure response dog, however, provides a role of safety and comfort for those going through a seizure. The response can range from the dog lying down next to a person having a seizure in order to prevent them injuring themselves if they thrash out, to barking to alert family members.

CANINE HEROES

Dogs have shown us time and time again their benefits, ranging from being entertaining and loving to life changing medical care. Certain dogs have been drawing attention by showing just how far they can go to be man's best friend:

RICOCHET: THE SURFING DOG

This very special golden retriever is the world's only SURFice dog. This pup channels her playfulness and patience into therapy by surfing and riding the waves with people who have a variety of disabilities. Her work has led to over $400,000 in donations to human/animal causes and she regularly participates in other therapy work with children or active military members who have suffered injury or PTSD.

CHOPPER: THE MOTORCYCLE RIDING DOG

This motorcycle riding Boston Terrier can be found riding on the backseat of his owner, Mark Shaffer's, Harley Davidson doing his duty as a therapy dog. He regularly visits hospitals and nursing homes amongst others bringing smiles all around whilst showing his skill son his own motorized motorbike.

SMILEY: THE BLIND THERAPY DOG

Smiley the golden retriever, who was born without eyes, works as a therapy dog with those who have certain disabilities including autism, those experiencing loss and the elderly. He has inspired so many to persevere with his happy attitude and wagging tail. He even helped one man who had never spoken or communicated before smile and make noises for the first time.

NORBERT: THE HIGH FIVING THERAPY DOG

Weighing in at only 1.3kg (3lbs), this little mixed breed dog has spread joy by high-fiving his way around nursing homes, hospitals and schools. He is the national mascot for the Children's Melanoma Prevention Foundation's SunAWARE program and has even been featured in his own book entitled 'Norbert: What Can Little Me Do?'

THERAPY AND SERVICE DOGS IN THE MODERN WORLD

Generally speaking, dogs can be classified according to the duties they perform and the training involved. Depending on the duty, they are either a service dog or a therapy dog. Therapy dogs are often people's pets which are brought into treatment centers and nursing homes at regular intervals. Unlike service animals, such as guide dogs, who have to be extensively trained to behave in a certain way, therapy animals simply have to be themselves. Breed, appearance and size does not really matter, only general temperament and health.

Different therapy organizations have slightly varying requirements, but in general, all therapy animals must be patient, relaxed, good-natured and able to respond to basic commands, regardless of distractions. They must be tolerant to sometimes awkward or rough handling by strangers, and confident in the face of other animals and unfamiliar circumstances. The good health of the animals is also paramount.

See a brief history of Pet Therapy and Service dogs on Fairmont.com, and a full list of sources, plus check out their interactive tool about the most commonly used assistance dogs.