The human-canine bond

human-canine bond

To realize how far our understanding of the human-canine bond has come, we need to take a trip back to 1908. In January of that year, an article appeared in The New York Times reporting on the outcome of a military tribunal concerning one Colonel Deems and his dog Riley. According to the article, “The Retiring Board in solemn conclave has decided that the Colonel’s fondness for the little fox terrier that had the run of Fort Howard, Baltimore, was not evidence of mental derangement.”

The testimony against the officer was supposed to be quite damning. One witness reported, “It must not be forgotten that Riley jumped right up in the Colonel’s ample lap and kissed him squarely in the mouth. Did it scores of times. Once he so far forgot himself as to carry off one of the Colonel’s boots surreptitiously and the post commander had to hobble around his quarters for an hour with one foot bootless while his orderly searched for the No. 10.”

The tribunal also heard that the Colonel did nothing when his dog acted “in utter disregard of the seriousness of army life” by treating officers and enlisted men in exactly the same way. Fortunately, despite the so-called evidence, the tribunal concluded that “the dog was merely the target of the affection of a lonely army bachelor”, and sent Colonel Deems back to active duty.

The benefits are more than emotional

Our view of the human-animal bond has clearly changed quite a bit since that hearing in the beginning of the 20th century. We can’t imagine someone’s mental state being called into question in our modern world simply because the person showed affection to a dog, or accepted affection from the dog in return. Today, in fact, our view of the human-animal bond has changed to such a degree that we actually look at dogs as a means of promoting both the mental and physical health of the people they live with.

The strength of the human-animal bond has been known for a long time, but scientific evidence about how it works was first published only about 35 years ago when a psychologist, Alan Beck of Purdue University, and a psychiatrist, Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania, actually measured what happens physically when a person pets a friendly and familiar dog. They found that the person’s blood pressure lowered, heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed – all signs of reduced stress. Furthermore, a study published recently in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine not only confirmed these effects, but showed changes in blood chemistry demonstrating reduced amounts of stress-related hormones. It is interesting to note that these positive psychological effects work a lot faster than many drugs taken for stress, since all these effects occurred after only five to 24 minutes of pleasantly interacting with the dog.

Can your dog help you live longer?

There is now a large amount of data confirming that dogs are good for your psychological health and may increase not only the quality of your life, but also your longevity. The benefits are not just short term but last well beyond the time that the pet is in the room, and the positive effects build up over time. In one important study of 5,741 people conducted in Melbourne, Australia, researchers found that dog owners had lower levels of blood pressure and cholesterol than those without a dog, even when both groups had the same poor lifestyles involving smoking and high-fat diets.

Dogs are good for your heart

Dogs can help even if you have started to show evidence of heart problems. In an intriguing study published in the American Journal of Cardiology, researchers followed more than 400 patients after they were released from hospital after having a heart attack. One year later, the dog owners had a significantly higher survival rate than non-pet owners. Their guess is that the affectionate bond and social support provided by their dogs was reducing their stress. This was significant since stress is a major contributor to cardiovascular problems.

Keeping depression and anxiety at bay

Of course, stress is not the only problem facing Canadians today. Up to 25% of people who go to general practitioners do so for depressive and anxiety disorders. Depression is actually considered to be much more disabling, both socially and even in physical functioning, than many chronic physical illnesses such as diabetes, arthritis and back pain. Although depression can be caused by many factors, one of the most common is simply loneliness.

People with inadequate human social support can really benefit from the emotional bonds that pets provide. With the weakening of extended family ties, older Canadians are particularly at risk of becoming lonely, isolated and depressed. In one study, research showed that people 60 years of age or older who lived alone were four times more likely to be diagnosed as clinically depressed than those who lived alone but had a dog. There was also evidence that the dog owners required fewer medical services and felt much more satisfied with their lives.

Dogs are a natural “icebreaker”

The easy and relaxed relationship most people have with pets also brings another benefit to those living alone. People report that when they are out walking with their dogs, strangers are much more likely to stop and talk with them – mostly because there is a dog to say hello to, and people seem to want that moment of relaxed interaction with a pet. This can sometimes have important implications for the person’s future lifestyle. Take the case of Emma Cooper, age 71, who had been living alone for nearly eight years since her husband died.

“I was out walking Surrey, my cocker spaniel, and this man stopped to give him a pat. He seemed like a nice man and told me he used to have a blonde cocker spaniel just like Surrey. We started to talk about living with dogs and then stopped for a cup of coffee. Well, one thing led to another and Bill and I are getting married next month – as soon as we can find a clergyman who is willing to let a dog stand in as the best man!”

Reducing “stockbroker stress”

A fascinating study, presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Conference, demonstrated how the addition of a dog to your lifestyle can make a difference. Researchers used a group of male and female stockbrokers, who were already beginning to show the effects of their stressful lifestyle, and who were candidates for medication to lower their blood pressure. The researchers first evaluated the brokers’ blood pressure under conditions of stress. They did this by producing a situation that might produce the same kinds of stress these stockbrokers typically face. They were next given speeded numerical tasks, and asked to role play a situation in which they had to talk their way out of an awkward position. In response to these stressful tasks, the stockbrokers’ average blood pressure shot up to 184/129 mm of mercury (any blood pressure of 140/90 mm of mercury is considered high).

Each of the stockbrokers was then prescribed the same medication, but half of them also agreed to get a dog. Six months later, the researchers called them back and gave them additional stress tests. Those stockbrokers who had now acquired a dog were allowed to keep their pets with them when they took their stress tests. The results were remarkable. The brokers who had the combined therapy (both a dog and medication) now showed a rise in stress-related blood pressure that was only half as large as the brokers who were treated with medication only!

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Stanley Coren is professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is also an award winning behavioural researcher, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, and was named as one of the 2,000 outstanding scientists of the 20th century. His many books on dog behaviour and human-canine interactions have been international bestsellers. His awards include the prestigious Maxwell Medal of Excellence from The Dog Writers Association of America for his book Born to Bark. Coren has been featured on Oprah, Larry King, and can be heard broadcasting a radio column on CBC. His newest book is Do Dogs Dream.