• My Dog, My Saviour

    I absolutely LOVE dogs.  

    Having just done a bit of a scan of the internet, looking for the dog related quote to grace this blog, I note I am not alone. One site has more than 390 dog quotes from the likes of Mark Twain, Milan Kundera, Charles de Gaulle and Woodrow Wilson.  The page doesn't even cover the general pupulation (sic) of dog owners across the world. People like me.

    We can all give at least five reasons why dogs are so great - unconditional love and forgiveness, loyalty, companionship, they are always pleased to see us, they never judge - the list (in my book) is endless.

    But move beyond the typical doggy-loving hyperbole, and we see increasing evidence that our dogs may actually be our greatest healers.  I know I have no doubts about this and I thank DOG for the fact I've had a canine companion around during some of the more challenging periods of my life, and they remain the best, greenest and most rewarding anti depressant and anxiolytic around.

    According to Ian Cook (Psychiatrist and Director of the Depression Research Program at UCLA), the research is now demonstrating what we have known instinctively for centuries:  Pets are good for mental illness!  In addition to those benefits listed above, Cook has also identified that pets benefit because of:

    • Uncomplicated love: "With a pet, you can just feel," says psychologist Teri Wright (PhD), “you don't have to worry about hurting your pet's feelings or getting advice you don't want.“
    • Responsibility: "Taking care of a pet can help give you a sense of your own value and importance. It reminds you that you are capable and can do more than you think”
    • Physical Activity: “If you have a dog that needs to be walked you’re more likely to get off the couch and engage in exercise.”
    • Routine: We know that routine can help with depression and because most if not all animals are routined, they help keep us on track.
    • Companionship: Loneliness is often compounded by depression because often people will isolate. Pets combat that for us.
    • Social Interaction: Pets are natural ice-breakers and help even the shyest person t
    • Touch: We are hard-wired for touch but many of us don’t experience it. Pets can fill this void.
    • Improved Physical Health: Pets have been shown to lower your blood pressure, reduce stress hormones like cortisol and boost feel good hormones like endorphines and dopamine. Dog owners, for example, on average exercise more, sleep better, report better general well-being and fitness, have fewer sick days and see their GP less than non dog owners.

    Dogs in Prisons training programs all around the world report the same results:

    • Lower rates of prisoner on prisoner violence
    • Greater sense of wellbeing among prisoners
    • Improved self-esteem in prisoners
    • Lower medication prescribing

    We also know that pets can help in the management of Autism. In a French study published in 2012, researchers found that autistic children who were given a pet (dog, cat, guinea pig) after the age of five were more socially adjusted. They shared their toys more and showed signs of empathy by comforting other children.  Another study by the University of Queensland found that when pets are present autistic children:

    • Talk more to those around them
    • Make more physical contact with others
    • Look at faces more often
    • When pets were present the children also laughed and smiled more and frowned less, whined less and cried less.

    The most interesting aspect of this study is that the pets only needed to be present.

    The studies on the benefits of pets on mental health are now pretty extensive.

    What makes me happy is that this evidence IS being translated in to practice - from formal programs run in inpatient, residential, prison settings through to programs being developed by clued up animal rescue organisations. One really brilliant example of this is the work carried out by Pets for Vets in the USA.  

    Pets for Vets is an initiative that has created an awesome solution to the problems of two important groups - returning war veterans with mental health issues AND abandoned/rescued dogs.  Their goal is to help heal the emotional wounds of military veterans by pairing them with a shelter dog that is specially selected to match his or her personality. Professional animal trainers rehabilitate the dogs and teach them good manners to fit into the veteran’s lifestyle. Training can also include desensitisation to wheel chairs or crutches as well as recognising panic or anxiety disorder behaviours. Needy shelter dogs receive a second chance at life while giving returning soldiers a second chance at health and happiness. How brilliant is that???

     

    I would recommend getting a dog to anyone.  As Roger A Caras says:  

    If you don't own a dog, at least one, there is not necessarily anything wrong with you, but there may be something wrong with your life.

    That being said, please don't get a dog on a whim.  To love and honour these little souls even half as much as they honour and love you, it takes a commitment of time to feed, exercise and keep them healthy and safe. Do this and I guarantee you that:

    To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring - it was peace.

     - Milan Kundera

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