The Dog as Health Therapist

It is the health benefits a dog may give to the ordinary owner which has attracted the greatest interest recently. This was stimulated by a study in the United States of ninety-two patients recovering from coronary artery disease. Researchers found that of all the possible factors which might be associated with remaining alive one year later, pet ownership was the most significant, excluding the severity of the heart attack itself. It could be argued that this effect is due to people taking more exercise with a dog in the home, but people with other pets, which did not need to be exercised, were also more likely to be alive after one year. One likely explanation is related to mental stress. Most people prefer ordered lives, and disruption to routine, such as retirement or hospitalization, are thought to be stressful, at least in part because of the difficulties in establishing new routines. The presence of a dog or other pet offers opportunities for developing a new life style. Animals have even more regular habits than humans and expect their owners to get up at the same time in the mornings and feed them at clearly established intervals.

An additional explanation for the health benefits derived from dogs has been studied experimentally. This theory holds that pets, including dogs, have a direct physiological effect on humans. In a pilot experiment, the blood pressure of adults stroking and talking to pet dogs was measured and proved to be no different from when they were resting quietly alone, and it might even fall in the presence of the dog. This contrasts strongly with what happens when people engage in l1uman conversations, when blood pressure almost always rises in separate study, the mere presence of a pet dog in a room was found to cause a lowering in blood pressure of children aged between nine and sixteen years.

The mechanism by which the stress reduction might work is still unclear and may have several components: the soft coat of a dog is pleasant to stroke, and warmth, people often stroke their dogs almost without  being aware of it, something which has been termed the 'idle touch', very different from people The only child often treats the dog as the longed-for sister or brother, developing in this way a protective instinct towards smaller and helpless beings For the older person on his Own, the trusting companion often constitutes the most compelling reason for a continued, orderly existence consciously touching each other. The effect appears to be reciprocal since the blood pressure of the dog is known to fall when it is being has further been suggested that the presence of calm animals, unconcerned with a n y dangers from their environment, has been a sign for relaxation and safety to man for most if not all of his evolutionary history. Set in a modern-home context, the sight of a contented dog may fulfill the same role and explain why a dog can reduce stress and make people feel secure.