Dogs make us healthier

Dogs: the universal stress-buster. That’s the claim increasingly made for ‘man’s best friend’ as dogs find their way into all kinds of unexpected medical situations. Last year, my own institution, the University of Bristol, teamed up with the Guide Dogs charity to offer stressed students a puppy play session. This was by no means the first of its kind: more than a thousand universities have put animal visitation programmes into place to help students. At Bristol University, the 600 slots quickly filled up. And the students’ enthusiasm is supported by research. In one study, after as little as seven minutes’ interaction with a friendly dog, students reported significantly less anxiety and greater feelings of contentment. Viewing a slideshow of the same dog for the same length of time had no effect on their mood. It seems that actually stroking and playing with the dog is crucial.

As well as stress, dogs are widely touted as a cure for all kinds of ills such as high blood pressure, loneliness, heart disease and depression, to name a few. A quick search of the internet will reveal countless articles extolling the health benefits of keeping pets. Some of these claims are supported by science, others remain to be investigated thoroughly, while a few seem to be little more than wishful thinking. So what does canine companionship really offer?

Stressed students clearly value the calming sensation of stroking a dog, and this effect is well supported by experiments. In this kind of research, a scientist will usually ask a person to read aloud to a stranger (which seems pretty tame compared to the sheer terror of an exam). Nevertheless, measurable reductions in stress have been recorded just by placing a dog in the same room as the subject. If stroking the dog is allowed, the reduction in stress is even greater. Moreover, it’s not simply that the reader reports feeling less stressed, it’s actually reflected in their physiology too: their blood pressure falls and their heart beats more slowly and rhythmically.

Paws for thought

So, it appears that dogs build bridges between people and make their owners seem more trustworthy. These may be the main benefits that dogs provide for veterans of conflict who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental health difficulties. Although it has been suggested that all veterans should have dogs, some find dog ownership too difficult. Trained PTSD dogs will bring the same stress-reducing benefits as any dog, but to be effective they also need to be trained to respond to the needs of their owner, whether that’s waking them from nightmares, bringing medicines, or leading them to safety when they experience a panic attack.

A dog’s capacity to bring people together may also explain their effectiveness in many kinds of therapy, including the benefits that dogs bring to nursing homes, especially to those institutions that care for individuals suffering from dementia. In one recent Italian study, scientists examined the reactions of dog-loving residents to regular half-hour sessions with therapy dogs. Playing with the dogs brought about a remarkable change in the residents’ behaviour. They went from being largely apathetic to become more active and animated, but also more spontaneous with the dogs – for example, throwing a ball for the animals to retrieve. Another notable feature of interaction with dogs is the extent to which elderly residents reach out and touch them, reducing their feelings of emotional isolation. Unfortunately, although claims have been made that contact with dogs might improve mental functioning, no such benefits have been detected.

There is evidence that some children with autism spectrum disorders benefit from the company of a dog. Some such children form intense relationships with animals, seemingly finding them easier to relate to. One recent study from France indicated that to be effective, the dog has to be obtained when the child is old enough to interact with it: such children tend to ignore pets who were there when they were a baby.

But dogs really come into their own when they can combine their outgoing natures with their incredible ability to read our body language – and their ultra-sensitive noses. Seizure alert dogs are now being trained to assist people with metabolic conditions such as brittle diabetes and Addison’s disease, but the original idea came from the dogs themselves, some of which seem to have taught themselves to alert their owners to an impending attack. It’s not known precisely how they do this, but a dog’s ability to detect minute changes in the body odour of the subject must play a part.

The relationship between us and dogs has been in existence for over 10,000 years, and shows no signs of weakening. But it is changing, as the traditional tasks that dogs performed have been supplemented by new roles. Getting a dog may not automatically make you healthier, but if you train it well it will undoubtedly make you happier – and encourage you to make new friends.

Article by: Dr John Bradshaw

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