I speak dog. My wife and kids are also fluent in dog. Chances are you are as well. As Jeffrey Kluger, senior editor of science and technology for Time magazine, recently reported, we have all grown up in a world in which dogs are everywhere and we have come to understand them. If a dog shares your home, you are most likely bilingual when it comes to dog communication as well as keenly aware of the bond that humans and dogs share. You no doubt can read their body language when it says happy or sad, tired or scared. You have learned to decipher the many distinctions of a growl or bark and the universal command for “Let’s play!”
According to Kluger, in areas populated by humans, dogs are the planet’s most abundant terrestrial carnivore. Of the nearly 900 million dogs worldwide – now subdivided into hundreds of breeds – nearly 80 million live in the U.S. We have relationships with other animals, but with dogs it is different, and historically so.
A finding of the earliest remains of humans and dogs interred together date to 14,000 years ago. There are those who believe the burial practice could be more than twice as old. “The larger point is the meaning of the discoveries: we lived with dogs and then chose to be buried with them. Imagine that,” Kluger writes.
As our most ancient ancestors huddled around campfires, other species came nosing around. One or two midsize scavengers with long muzzles would stand at a distance and gaze at them with a certain attentiveness, a certain loving neediness that apparently was too much to resist. They were eventually welcomed in. The relationship that developed became much more than a typical response to mutual need – that dogs would hunt for us and herd for us and we would keep them warm and fed in return.
As civilization advanced, our alliance with dogs by this measure should have faded. Working dogs were needed less and less. Yet we kept paying dogs their “food-and-shelter salary,” as Kluger calls it, even if we got little in material returns. What began as a mutual-services contract between two very different species became something much more. Their presence was calming. More than that, dogs seemed sensitive to the varying emotional states of humans. Studies have shown dogs will respond to human crying and will approach people, whether their owner or a total stranger, when they show signs of distress.
Recently, researcher Julia Manor at Ripon College in Wisconsin thought up a trial to investigate whether dogs would go a step further than just approaching people. Would they take action to help a person in need?
Her experiment was conducted with 34 dogs of various breeds, including mongrels, and their owners. About half were therapy dogs. While some past research has indicated dogs would not help their human companions in distress, it is believed the tasks to demonstrate “help” were too difficult for a dog to understand. Therefore, Manor and her colleagues adapted a more straightforward task where dogs had to nudge open a door to access their owner in distress.
Researchers found that most dogs behaved empathetically in response to their owner’s cries. To behave empathetically toward another individual, you must not only be aware of the distress of another person, but also suppress your own stress enough to help. Many dogs were just too upset to act. The take away from this experiment is that your dog may not be up to “Lassie” standards and pull you out of a well if you fall down one, but there is a good chance they will open a door to help you if you are in trouble.
That dogs give us emotional support is beyond dispute. As I have reported in the past, dog ownership has been linked to lower blood pressure in dog owners. Having a dog around has shown to lead to lower levels of stress for both adults and kids. Studies have shown that dog ownership can decrease the risk of asthma in children.
Much of the evidence surrounding dogs and health is anecdotal. What goes without question is the special standing dogs have in the medical community. Trained to see for the blind, hear for the deaf and move for the immobilized, dogs have become indispensable companions for people with disabilities. Dog-assisted interventions in visiting the sick are now a given form of therapy alongside conventional medicine.
In 2003, University of Florida researchers published a report in the journal Seizure noting that some dogs seem to have an innate ability to detect impending seizures. In 2000, a report in the British Medical Journal examined case studies of dogs alerting people with diabetes of a coming hypoglycemic episode.
Older dog owners are more active than seniors who do not own dogs. As reported by Time magazine, a study revealed older dog owners take 2,760 more steps per day on average compared to non-owners. This equates to an additional 23 daily minutes of moderate exercise. This benefit is especially important for a population that is aging and becoming more sedentary.
A study by the American Cancer Society which followed 140,000 older adults reported those who walked six hours per week had a lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease and cancer than those who were not active. It also revealed that walking even as little as two hours per week could begin to reduce the risk of disease and help people live longer, healthier lives. One thing about a dog, they are always happy to take you for a walk. In fact, they insist upon it.
As wildlife preservationist Roger Caras once said: “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.