By Phil Wyzik
For the past five years, I have been sharing my life with an 18-pound furry bundle of canine. And his joy, curiosity and unconditional positive regard and my existence is richer for it.
Who would have thought that a small Tibetan Spaniel could wiggle and sniff his way into my stony heart, bringing it so many happy days? The answer is simple to any pet lover: Animals bring us something we might not have without them.
The health benefits of owning a dog
Many people underestimate the role pets play in helping our health. But there is plenty of evidence now that kids have less risk of allergies and asthma when there is a pet in the house. Pets can lower a human’s blood pressure, boost the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine (both related to the pleasure regions of the brain that mitigate stress).
Studies have also shown that male pet owners have fewer signs of heart disease, and heart attack victims live longer when they have a pet. Alzheimer’s disease patients have fewer outbursts and wanderings when they have a pet around.
There is a growing realization that pets can bring us many social benefits too. When you walk a friendly dog in downtown Keene or even a big city, people smile and talk to you. I can eat lunch at one of our many wonderful outdoor places and, if my dog is with me, strangers come over and chat, mostly asking about Buddy, many even bending down to give him a pat or scratch. Social connections make the world go around; they also bring us a health benefit we’re just learning more about. Isolation and loneliness are known to be risk factors for illness.
Some dogs have now demonstrated to us hapless humans that they can learn to detect the onset of epileptic seizures or crippling flashbacks in people who have post-traumatic stress. To be clear, we humans didn’t teach dogs this talent; they seemed to have figured it out themselves in their drive to be useful to their owners.
To be sure, dogs are amazing creatures. People have been using their species for help with working (think herding sheep), for safety (think watch dogs or bomb sniffers), for service (think seeing-eye dogs or other utility functions) and for companionship.
Good for our mental health too
What’s even more interesting to me is the psychological benefits that come with pets, particularly the canine variety. With dogs, we feel safe, both emotionally and physically. That might itself account for the potential stress-relieving benefits of owning a pet, but I suspect it goes deeper than that.
As most any dog owner can tell you, the bond that exists between the owner and pet is lasting and powerful. Attuned to our needs, moods, body language and tone of voice, dogs can unfailingly be there for us with their unconditional positive regard, ready support and their predictable message of companionship.
From a mental health point of view, that faithfulness is powerful medicine. As for Buddy, he’s not the only doctor I use. But with him, I never need an appointment.