By Mary Reitano
“Unless you have loved an animal, part of your soul remains unawakened.” Anatole France, French poet
According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, we are in the “dog days of summer.” Often associated with hot, humid weather, the phrase originally related to the seasonal rising of the Dog Star, Sirius. So, this seems a good time to extol the benefits of dog ownership! Dogs make us laugh with their playful antics. They amuse us with their human-like behaviors and expressions. Stanley Coren, canine psychologist, found dogs have the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans, and the same hormones as humans during emotional states, including oxytocin, associated with human love and affection. So it seems logical to suggest dogs have emotions like ours. Canines are acutely attuned to human behavior and emotions. They understand words and tone of voice, body language, and gestures. Like a person, a dog will look into your eyes to gauge what you’re thinking and feeling (and perhaps when the next treat is coming).
Dogs relate by sense of smell, and imaging studies show that dogs prioritize their human’s smells, per writer Tasmai Uppin. “Their reward centers lit up like fireworks on the 4th of July when presented with their owner’s familiar smell.” Dogs seem to see us as family. They count on humans more than canines for affection, protection, food. Dogs are the only species that seek eye-contact with people, and run to their owners when afraid. Dogs are therapeutic because they fulfill the basic human need to touch. Author Dean Koontz wrote “petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation and almost as good for the soul as prayer.” Researchers found when a person pets a friendly, familiar dog–blood pressure drops, heart rate slows, breathing becomes more regular and muscle tension relaxes. And coming home to your happy pet is all you need to forget about a bad day.
Clinical settings are using pet therapy with conventional medicine because of evidence that animals improve mental health, per Mandy Oaklander, Time magazine. Due to fear of infection, it used to be taboo to have an animal in a hospital, says Alan Beck at Purdue University. But now, every major children’s hospital has an animal program. Animals help reduce stress for all patients. Social support comes on four legs, not just two. Dogs provide emotional companionship, and dogs love us unconditionally. Actress Doris Day said “I have found that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent, devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source.” Research showed people over age 60, not living with human companions, but living with a pet, were diagnosed as depressed four times less often than people without pets. Roger Caras, author, wrote “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
Mary Reitano is a licensed Professional Counselor Associate practicing in Lake Lure. Her focus is positive psychology with a holistic approach addressing emotional, relational, mental, physical and spiritual health. She can be reached at 704-858-2926 or firstname.lastname@example.org.