The strong connection between humans and dogs dates back at least 15,000 years. It is still somewhat of a mystery how this powerful relationship evolved between humans and certain friendly wolves on their way to becoming dogs. Throughout recorded history this bond has gotten stronger, culminating in advances in the relationship and increasing evidence of its benefits.
The year 2019 marks the 90th anniversary of The Seeing Eye Institute in Morristown, New Jersey. Since its founding, the institute has trained more than 17,000 guide dogs and their blind owners to forge a life-changing partnership. In 1929, the concept of a service dog was unheard of and early guide dogs were not accepted in public places.
The tasks for a trained guide dog are more complex than they might at first appear. Obeying traffic signals, the avoidance of vehicles and basic guidance along sidewalks is tricky. The dog must comply with its owner’s wishes but sometimes needs to be assertive when, for example, there is an unexpected construction hazard on a familiar street. The success of guide dogs paved the way for discovering other ways in which dogs can be of service and learning more about their extraordinary abilities.
Hearing dogs and mobility assistance dogs have been around for about 35 years. Hearing dogs are trained to alert their deaf owners to important sounds such as sirens, alarms, doorbells or crying babies, while assistance dogs work with their physically disabled owners to improve the quality of life. Dogs can assist wheelchair-bound persons to make it through difficult situations, and patients with Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis with balance challenges are assisted by dogs trained in a technique called “counterbalance,” which enables the walking of otherwise impossible distances.
Training dogs to alert and assist owners with seizure disorders began within the past two decades. These efforts grew out of the observation that some dogs perform these services spontaneously. Dogs were observed staying close to and protecting their owners suffering seizures. With training these tendencies can be refined and made more reliable. And through unknown mechanisms, some dogs are able to anticipate seizures by a couple of minutes, which can be tremendously helpful.
In the past decade, diabetes alert dogs have become widely available. All of us give off a specific scent if blood glucose levels get too high or too low. Some dogs naturally respond to these aromas and, with proper training, can learn to alert the diabetic or, in the case of a small child, alert responsible adults in the household that intervention is needed.
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Psychiatric service dogs can be transformative for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. Because of past traumas, these sufferers often feel vigilant and overwhelmed about their personal safety. A service dog engenders feelings of security at home and creates a physical boundary between the owner and other people in public places. The bond with the dog is itself healing, and the owner’s requirement to care for the dog often generalizes to reestablish self-care.
The Animal Planet television series “Rescue Dog to Super Dog” presents success stories of the efforts of dog trainers Laura London and Nate Schoemer to match rescue dogs from shelters with people with disabilities. It’s moving to see the excitement and the developing bond as dog and human begin a new life together.
But it has become clear that even our ordinary house dogs benefit us greatly. Research conducted by the American Heart Association and published this month in Science Daily has confirmed that owning a dog is good for your health. This research focused on heart and stroke patients, but other studies have revealed benefits to us all.
The Heart Association research reviewed data for over 3.8 million patients from 10 separate studies. Researchers found that compared to non-owners, dog owners experienced a 24% reduced risk of death from any cause, a 65% reduced death risk after a heart attack and a 31% reduced death risk following a stroke.
There are multiple reasons for these reductions in mortality. Patients report decreased levels of depression, anxiety and feelings of loneliness. These translate into reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol levels and a boost in immune responses. And, of course, dog ownership is associated with increased physical exercise and social interactions.
Some have argued that the almost $70 billion spent on dogs each year in the United States is an indication of self-indulgence and folly. But it is clear that our love affair with dogs is not going away and has unexpected and remarkable benefits.