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Very few people can resist the urge to pet a friendly dog. Why might this be? probably because it is natural to be in contact with other species, and within our deeper psyche we need the company of other animal species. After all, for some hundred thousand years we have bred dogs to be our companions and workmates.
We have accelerated their natural selection as our companion. Man has not evolved in isolation and he has certainly evolved to live alongside other species.
According to the ethologists, we have also modified the behavioural traits of horses and selected those traits which we find most endearing.
What are the sorts of traits that we have bred into dogs? Certainly one of the most endearing is that they seem to enjoy our company. Dogs are very social animals and within the domestic situation generally accept their place as part of a pack, although this can go wrong and the dog can become far too assertive and aspire to be the leader of the pack.
Some understanding of the instinctive behaviour of dogs is very useful in working out successful training strategies. Most so-called behavioural problems of dogs are actually the fault of the owner not understanding enough about the dog. Pet behaviour counselling is much more about training the owner than the dog!
The human animal bond has often been studied and continues to attract more study today. Animals have been used to assist in the treatment of human psychiatric disorders and many patients have proved capable of forming relationships with animals and gaining great benefit from it.
I was confronted once with a recently discharged psychiatric patient, a gentle giant of well over six feet who was clutching a tiny kitten that his social worker had obtained for him. We came to know both of them very well at the surgery and he cared for that kitten to the very best of his ability. It became his reason to exist, our only worry was how he would react if something happened to the kitten.
Involving companion animals in patient care is not a new concept. The Ancient Greeks kept dogs in the healing temples and advocated horseback riding for people suffering from depression and to lift the spirits of the terminally ill. Such practices were subsequently adopted by the Romans (Rennie 1997) Pliny the Elder encouraged middle aged women to keep lapdogs. In the ruins of Pompeii a frieze depicts a dog leading a blind man. Down the ages people kept dogs to preserve their sanity. The first recorded introduction of companion animals to an institution in the UK as part of the therapeutic process was at the York Retreat, a progressive psychiatric facility established in 1796. Many of the retreat's approaches, including the keeping of animal were adopted by other institutions. Even Florence Nightingale passed an opinion that:
"a small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick and for long chronic cases especially" (1860)
So what about the evidence? The medical literature concerning the therapeutic value of animals is extensive. Serpell carried out a study of the beneficial effects of pet ownership in which he demonstrated measurable improvements in the health of people who acquired a pet. His study suggested that the improvements could be relatively long lasting.
The best known physiological effect of companion animals is the lowering of blood pressure of people under moderate stress in the presence of friendly dogs Garrity and others found that the level of attachment of psychiatric patients to their pet animals directly related to lifting their depression. A number of studies have shown improvements in activity after a dog visiting programme was started at a long stay hospital: decreases in anti social behaviour were recorded in emotionally disturbed youths in similar circumstances. Siegel found that pet owners were much better able to cope with stressful life events than non-owners. An Australian study linked significantly lower levels of blood fats, cholesterol and blood pressure in pet owning patients. a recent symposium at the Royal Society of Medicine stated that owning a pet significantly reduced the number of GP visits.
Many studies have clearly demonstrated that there is a positive relationship between the presence of suitable pet animals and the sociability and health of fit as well as elderly and mentally disturbed patients.
Children brought up in the presence of animals show many benefits; better non-verbal communication, popularity and social competence as well as higher levels of self esteem. There is clearly an educational role for animals: Life, reproduction, birth, many healthy activities and illnesses, accident and particularly death and bereavement are often encountered for the first time through the possession of a pet.
Pioneering work with bottle-nosed dolphins in Florida has shown that therapy for autistic children with such animals is a reality; the work makes use of the dolphin's extraordinary rapport with humans in the water. Many studies have explored the positive socialising effects of companion animals on children. Andrew Edney, a veterinary surgeon who has written extensively on these matters,
concluded that 'it is not too fanciful to conceive that it might be possible to reduce the levels of crime and other antisocial behaviour in young people by encouraging nurturing traits by the careful introduction of companion animals.
There are of course all the various assistance dogs which improve the life of their owners. Pre-eminent in this area is the work of Guide Dogs in this country and elsewhere, whereby the dog provides a truly life-changing benefit to its owner. Incidentally, those that work in this field also recognise the other less tangible benefits to their clients of owning and having to care for a dog. Dogs for the disabled, for the deaf, to alert people suffering from seizures and even recently to assist those suffering from Alzheimer's Disease are all other examples of the value of animals to Man. An even more novel approach has been that of using dogs to detect cancers by means of their acute sense of smell.
There are of course always certain health risks associated with animals and the potential nuisance factor of inappropriate animal behaviour such as noise or the risk of injury - not to mention the problem of owners who don't clean up after their dogs.
We have come to fear dog bites with an almost supernatural dread. The old adage that a dog should be put down because it bit someone once is very harsh. However, dogs that have been allowed to develop dominance are a liability because they have learned that a curled lip is enough win them any confrontation. Some breeds are more likely to bite and some even attack in certain situations. An understanding of the dog and its pack hunting instinct sheds light on these occasional and distressing incidents. By and large, a well adjusted properly trained dog is very unlikely to bite anybody except in extreme circumstances.
Sadly, not all of the medical profession view animals in an entirely beneficial light. Some general practitioners see the family dog as nothing more than a bundle of allergens. Many people worry about 'things they can catch from their animals'. Whilst there are plenty of communicable diseased shared by species, most infectious diseases don't cross between species. With sensible everyday hygiene practices the risks can be reduced to a very low level.
According to the World Health Organisation:
"whilst irresponsible attitudes easily result in problems of surplus and straying animals, environmental pollution and an increased risk of zoonotic (a disease caught from animals) disease, companion animals which are properly cared for bring immense benefits to their owners and to society and are a danger to no one."
Vets are well aware of zoonotic diseases and will advise their clients on the appropriate use of suitable medications to reduce the risks to even lower levels. A lot of information especially on the Internet is outdated, or just plain wrong and no self respecting pet owner should fail to consult their vet on the appropriate measures to take. Phobias about animals often stem from distressing experiences in childhood or simply ignorance. They can often be rationalized and then controlled, though not always. Allergies to animals are recognised and can be a source of great discomfort to the sufferer. The good old flea can result in human skin problems: extremely effective control measures are now available and no animal needs to harbour fleas. This is another area where there seems to be widespread misunderstanding: good professional advice and the right products are all that is needed.
Keeping a pet results in the formation of strong emotional bonds so there can be great distress in the losing of a pet. This is the price we pay for the pleasure we get. It is a form of bereavement and owners can be quite confused by the power of the emotions they experience. This is where experiences gained as a child can help: For adult owners who have not previously owned a pet and therefore not experienced pet bereavement as a child, the effects can be overwhelming. Psychologists tell us that our relationship with our dog is similar to that we would have with a 3 to 4 year old child; this puts our reaction into perspective.
So next time you see an elderly person out for a walk with their dog, or a child playing with their pet, or somebody stopping to have a chat with the neighbour's cat who is sitting disdainfully on the garden wall, think of this interaction between two species; and marvel at it!
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