A Girl & Her Dog: Why Dogs Are Good For You
by Chelsy Ranard
The first thing I see when I come home is a wagging tail and big smile from my dog, Titan. Before I do anything else I let him outside and give him a treat, loves, and receive lots of kisses. He circles at my feet and looks up at me as if I’m the greatest thing he’s seen all day and it never fails to make me smile. My cat tries hard to be excited by waking up from her 100th nap, stretching, and jumping on the table to greet me as well, but her enthusiasm is quite muted next to my giant oaf of a German Shepherd fighting for my attention. I pick up the cat, feel her purr against me, give her a kiss, and wait until she squirms to be put back down. But Titan, he could spend all day with me loving, hugging, and squeezing him.
For those like me who come home to a smiley, happy dog every day, or any animal lover, really, it’s easy to believe that dogs are good for us. They make us happy, are always excited to see us, and offer unconditional companionship. For all of these reasons, and a lot more, it is true that animals do offer a lot of benefits to us as owners and as therapy dogs. Not only do they help us, but our affection helps them as well.
Believe it or not, cuddling with a pet can help ward off allergies. This might seem backwards, but the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a number of studies showing that having a pet can lower a child’s likelihood of developing animal related allergies by as much as 33 percent and introducing pets early on help children to develop stronger immune systems. The CDC has conducted studies on the effects that our animals have on our hearts. And, of course, it’s no surprise that our hearts are healthier with our animals than without them. Pet owners tend to have decreased blood pressure, cholesterol, and triglyceride levels which all lower the risk for having a heart attack.
Another added health benefit that your pup provides is their added need for exercise. Dog owners tend to be more fit and healthy due to their dog’s need to get in a daily workout. Dog owners tend to live more active lifestyles engaging in running, biking and hiking in order to include their furry companion in their activities. Activities like these that involve a lot of cardio and an elevated heart rate are great for your heart, lungs, and overall health as well as your dog’s.
For Your Pup
Being a pet owner is not only great for your health, but it greatly benefits your pup as well. For adopted dogs, especially, they are in a much healthier environment than they would be otherwise. An animal living in a home as a part of a family benefits from physical affection, a healthier environment, and human interaction that many dogs need in order to be happy. Dogs are social animals and without the proper amount of contact they are missing the vital need for touch than many humans require as well. So, while one great benefit to having an animal is the feeling of companionship and unconditional love, your animal is feeling that as well and benefiting from the positive feeling of friendship just like you are.
Dogs that live at home with a family also benefit from physical benefits as well, just like humans do. Animal shelters are great and necessary for many animals that are homeless, but it’s no place for a dog to stay forever. They need more room to move, more exercise, and more love from a family that they can bond with. Dogs are innately pack animals and will benefit the most in a family, pack-like situation. Being around so many other dogs can cause severe anxiety, fear, and boredom that is ultimately not the best for their psyche. Dog related illnesses are also, obviously, more prominent in a shelter. When you take your dog for a walk, run, hike, bike ride, or just out in the yard to throw the ball you are helping them to remain active which is elongating their life in the same way that their companionship is doing for yours.
Dogs as Therapy
Animal-assisted therapy involves the use of animals as a form of treatment. There are many health benefits associated with owning an animal, but just being around an animal for a few hours can also be a big help. Studies show that interacting with animals can increase dopamine and serotonin levels which help to calm and relax you. For this reason animal-assisted therapy is used in hospitals, with children with behavioral disorders, in prisons, in nursing homes, addiction centers, for those suffering with anxiety or depression, and many more. There have also been many positive changes for those suffering with PTSD and their involvement with animal-assisted therapy.
In order for a dog to become an accredited therapy dog they need to go through specific training and a certification. Fortunately, the emotional benefits of being around a dog can be obtained regardless of certification. For many institutions like hospitals or mental institutions they may require an animal with the proper paperwork in order to ensure the health and safety of their patients, but others don’t require an animal to be certified in order for them to interact with patients that could benefit from a fuzzy companion. Dogs are often brought to college campuses during finals week in order to calm stressed out college students, included in therapy sessions for stroke victims, or for children with autism. If you are volunteering your animal for these reasons, be sure to pay attention to your dog’s body language and refrain from using your dog for animal therapy if they are anxious, not properly socialized, aggressive, or nervous around new people or new situations.
Animal Therapy Culture
Animal-assisted therapy is a practice that isn’t specific to dogs, either. Many different types of animals are used for animal therapy and still offer the same type of benefits from the emotional to the physical. Horses are a very popular therapy animal and many horses specialize in equine-assisted therapy because of the many benefits on the physical side of riding and controlling a horse as well as being comforted and calmed by the companionship that the horse provides. Cats are another animal that is commonly used for therapy because of the health benefits similar to those that your dog offers. A cat’s purr is scientifically shown to be connected with healing properties, lower blood pressure, and lower stress levels. Dolphins, llamas, rabbits, hamsters, and even fish have all been used in forms of animal-assisted therapy.
Even though animal-assisted therapy animals are working animals that perform a service, especially if they are certified, they are not considered service animals. Service animals are not considered pets and work for their human. Service dogs have many of the characteristics of a therapy animal but also have more specialized training and skills. Another sector of animal helpers are the emotional support animals. They are not considered animal-assisted therapy animals or service animals although they can double as both. Emotional support animals don’t have to be certified in order to do this job but do need to have proof of their status in order to be granted immunity for housing that doesn’t allow pets according to the Fair Housing Act. Also, emotional support animals are more commonly utilized to support their owners and not others like therapy animals.
When Titan licks my face, smiles at me, leans on me, cuddles, or gives me those big puppy eyes I have no doubt that animals like him offer emotional and physical support to their owners as well as other people they interact with. Dogs hold a special place in many of our hearts whether we own one or just enjoy being around them. Not only are they great companions, but they offer many emotional and physical health benefits for their owners and many others that interact with them. They benefit from helping others, having a job, and receiving loves while offering companionship. The culture of animal-assisted therapy is all about utilizing animals in a way that can help us as well as the animal in forming bonds that are built between us. The bottom line is that it is really hard to feel sad with a dog licking your face, trying to climb into your lap, and smiling at you like you’re their favorite thing in their world; and you probably are.
Chelsy is a writer from Montana who is now living in beautiful Boise, Idaho. She graduated with her journalism degree in 2012 from the University of Montana. She is passionate about animal welfare, enjoys volunteering at Simply Cats in Boise, and spends her time having at-home therapy sessions with her animals. Follow her on Twitter!