How Do Dogs Benefit People?
J Langlands ACFBA
They make us healthy!
In some cases, dogs provide a service through fetching and carrying, opening doors and assisting in everyday tasks in order to help less able bodied or sensory impaired people to live independent lives, others alert their owners to falling blood sugar or the onset of a seizure, carry out search and rescue operations or serve to assist the police force. These roles contribute to society as a whole, or to the happiness, health and independence of the individual.
Pet dogs enhance the owner’s life through companionship, emotional support and through lifting the mood of their caregivers, people that own dogs live longer and exercise more on average than those without. When we pet a dog our heart rate lowers as does our blood pressure, we produce oxytocin which is responsible for feelings of love and affection – this impacts our cortisol receptors so that we can deal better with stress, short and long term, and this then supports immune function and our ability to resist and recover from disease.
They positively impact child development!
Dog ownership offers enormous benefits to children of all ages. It has been shown that a dog in the family promotes better immune function; if a dog is present in the home of an infant this can significantly reduce the occurrence of allergies throughout life (1). A family dog ensures regular fresh air and exercise, develops empathy and respect for living things, promotes responsibility and builds patience.
The opportunity to train and care for a dog is an amazing gift for a capable older child or adolescent as dog ownership not only offers the stated benefits, but also teaches calmness and confidence in communicating, provides a feeling of achievement along with allowing for a special bond. Learning how to communicate and understand another species, to compromise and care, to have determination and patience in training, and learning how to say ‘No’ with conviction and kindness are all wonderful, empowering and life enhancing factors that come with dog ownership.
A best friend and an ally is not a guarantee, but creating an understanding with another species is very special - no matter on what level. A dog understands how you are and how you feel, there is no need to relate this in words, and a dog never judges or assumes – they are inherently honest! I see this relationship between autistic children and family dogs every day. Dogs enhance the lives of children in every possible way – I think that sensitive children benefit most from dog ownership, but all can gain a great deal from spending less time in front of the TV or playing a video game, and more time in nature walking with a dog.
They support the elderly!
Dog ownership offers the opportunity to care for another and to be cared for in return. Caring for a dog provides purpose and boosts self-esteem and pride. Older people are probably most at risk of isolation, depression, loneliness and anxiety, all of which dogs can remedy! Companionship is a given, and walking a dog enables the owner to meet and chat to people in the community regularly, and to stay active, this can prevent isolation and loneliness and also offers structure and activity during the day. The safety conferred by having a dog to alert to visitors and discourage trespassers or those with malign intent is another hugely reassuring factor that is particularly relevant to this sector of society, most of all to those living alone.
A 2006 study (2) from the University of Portsmouth showed that walking a dog lowers depression and allows for a connection with nature – which is an important part of spiritual health in later years. At a very basic level, natural light interacts with metabolic pathways and is a fundamental requirement for regulating mood, appetite, health and sleep-wake cycle – everybody should have a reason to venture outdoors each day, older people and isolated people stand to benefit greatly, and are the least likely to if they have no incentive.
They give therapeutic Support
The health and social benefits are intertwined here – body, mind and spirit assisting to promote health of the whole. Dogs have the amazing ability to promote health and happiness as shown through previous examples, but for this sector of society the benefits are incredibly powerful. The issues of loneliness, boredom and depression are more relevant here, and the neurobiological rewards of interacting with and petting a dog can not only improve the quality of life, mental health and optimism in care home residents, but can also decrease recovery time in hospitals. Dementia patients have been shown to feel less agitated and more relaxed following a visit from a therapy dog, and the carers of dementia patients benefit consequently. The residents, their families and carers and the volunteers themselves gain a lot from the interaction, and this impacts those around them, like a ripple.
At risk of sounding fanciful, I think that the unconditional love that is given to, and received from a dog is a beautiful thing that can’t really be put concisely into words. Despite the scientific basis and reasoning, analysis of the components, and rational nature of the evidence, the relationship represents more than the sum of the parts somehow.
1. Gern JE, Reardon CL, Hoffjan S et. al. (2004) 'Effects of dog ownership and genotype on immune development and atopy in infancy.', online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14767447
2. Edwards V & Knight S,(2006),'Understanding the Psychology of Walkers with Dogs: new approaches to better management ', online: https://www.forestry.gov.uk/pdf/eng-dogs-understanding-psychology-dog-walkers-06.pdf/$FILE/eng-dogs-understanding-psychology-dog-walkers-06.pdf