Looking into the warm, trusting eyes of my dogs makes me smile–and I’m far from alone. Pooches are as much a part of the cultural fabric of America as baseball, hotdogs and apple pie. Dogs transcend economic and social classes. Can you name an American President who didn’t have a dog? People who have dogs live happier lives as a result of the bond between humans and dogs.
But can dogs really improve the health of their owners? As most dog owners can attest, there are undeniable emotional rewards that come with dog ownership, but there is now ample evidence that dogs increase our longevity and health as well. The benefits of dogs to human health has been the subject of study since the 1970s. During the ’80s, studies revealed that heart attack patients who have dogs live longer lives than those who do not. This is not surprising when you consider that similar studies prove that gently petting a dog can also lower one’s blood pressure.
Research at the Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine provides some evidence of why the everyday relationship between humans and their dogs are such strong ones. These studies indicate that humans who interact with dogs experience an increased production of the hormone oxytocin, which causes them to experience an increased sense of contentment, well-being and reduced stress, important factors in any healthy person’s life.
Oxytocin, produced by all mammals, was also the subject of South African research that takes an even closer look at the human/canine relationship. These studies revealed that friendly interaction between a human and dog results in the production of oxytocin in both humans and canines alike, which serves to strengthen bonds in these relationships. It’s safe to say, then, that these relationships are mutually beneficial.
An increasing number of household dogs provide benefits to humans, proving it’s not just guide dogs that help people in their day-to-day lives. These days pet dogs interact with humans every day in schools, nursing homes, jails and mental institutions as a form of therapy, providing happiness and improved health to those they visit. The American Kennel Club (AKC) now has a “Therapy Dog” program in which a dog can earn therapy dog recognition if it passes certain criteria relating to its temperament and personality. The title of “Companion Dog” is another title a dog can earn from AKC. Dogs in these categories usually spend a fair amount of their time interacting with the public, charming the humans they meet, making them ambassadors for canines everywhere. While these therapy and companion dogs work in the public eye to improve the quality of life for humans, millions of other dogs serve equally important roles in private as they enrich the lives of their human best friends.
So, when you grab Fido’s leash and head out the door to spend some quality time with him, remember that it’s more than the fresh air and physical exercise that is doing both of you some good; it’s also the experience of spending time together with your special canine friend and enjoying each other’s company.