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Dogs and Human Health

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In recent years scientists have found the beneficial effects that dogs have on human health extend much further than being a motivation for exercise and a focus of affection. The presence of a dog can reduce blood pressure and relieve pain and stress, aid the recovery of convalescents and act as a vital means of support to HIV patients and those with drug dependency.

The amount of regular exercise a dog encourages an owner to take must not be under-rated.  A good daily walk at a reasonable pace helps to maintain a good bodyweight and avoid weight related problems such as heart and respiratory disease, diabetes and joint disease.  Elderly people with a dog are far more likely to take consistent exercise, and by doing so, will improve strength and mobility and gain relief from arthritic pain.  The daily constitutional has a mentally stimulating effect too and can reduce the symptoms of depression.  Most importantly, walking a dog facilitates communication. A stranger will admire the dog and want to pet it, or another dog owner will make conversation due to mutual interest.  Dog owners tend to be inspired with a greater confidence to socialise freely because the presence of the dog reduces anxiety.  This common link with other people can be crucial to those who live alone, are elderly or out of work. 

Scientific research has established that dog owners have fewer minor health problems and visit doctors less.  Women recovering from breast cancer are significantly better at managing their disease and coping with disfigurement if they own a pet, and dog owners have a better rate of survival after suffering a heart attack.  The Society of Anthrozoology reported in 2009 that adults using pet therapy when recovering from total joint replacement needed 50% less pain medication than those not using pet therapy.

When people become anxious or upset the body responds with the ‘flight or fight’ response, which activates the sympathetic nervous system and causes an increase of blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate and produces hormonal change.   Several scientific studies have shown that the presence of a friendly dog can significantly reduce these symptoms in older people, college students and children when in a stressful situation such as speaking in public.

As well as having a physiological benefit to humans, dogs have a positive influence on mental health.   Researchers in Austria found that by introducing a dog into a primary school it had a therapeutic effect on education and children concentrated better and were less hyperactive.  A dog that is brought into a school for children with severe autism and learning difficulties will encourage an improvement of self esteem and empathy towards others.

There is anecdotal and scientific evidence that dogs visiting nursing homes have elicited a response in elderly people who were previously withdrawn or have helped geriatric patients suffering severe depression.   Dogs can have a calming effect on people suffering from Alzeimer’s disease too and their presence reduces the amount of verbal aggression and increases sociability. 

Assistance dogs make an enormous impact on the lives of the disabled and those suffering from chronic illness.  Their tasks include being guide dogs for the blind, hearing dogs for the deaf, dogs for the disabled and sniffer dogs who detect cancer, hypoglycaemia in diabetic patients and cortisol levels in someone suffering from Addison’s disease.  (See ‘Karen and Coco’s story’- in Special Human/Dog Relationships – The Sniffer Dog in Famous Dogs). 

A project initiated at a women’s prison in Washington has taught prisoners how to train dogs to assist the physically handicapped.  The dogs used are frequently obtained from rescue shelters. When the prisoners have trained the dogs in general assistance duties, they liaise with the disabled recipient to find out their specific needs and train the dog accordingly.  This scheme not only brings benefits to the disabled, but also provides abandoned dogs with homes and helps prisoners in rehabilitation.

Apart from the traditional way in which dogs assist people with disabilities, dogs play a very supportive role to HIV patients and those suffering from AIDS.  Despite our improved knowledge since the epidemic of the early 80’s, there is still a stigma attached to being HIV positive and sufferers often feel ostracised and alone.  A dog provides a source of unconditional love and acceptance as well as fun and a physical contact that would otherwise be missing from the lives of HIV patients.   Zoonoses (diseases that can be passed from one species to another) can present a certain risk to these patients due to having a compromised immune system, but as long as the animal is regularly health checked, is over 6 months of age, and the patient takes suitable hygiene precautions, it is thought that the positive effect a companion pet has in alleviating depression far outweighs the risk.

Archie and the NAT team’s ‘Walk for Life’
One whippet’s ‘crusaid’ to improve the lives of people with HIV

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On June 6th 2010, Archie, a handsome black whippet, will be donning his red ‘NAT’ (National Aids Trust)  tee shirt and joining his friends in the NAT team for the ‘Walk for Life’.

This annual sponsored walk covers 10 km around London and raises vital funds for HIV sufferers both in the UK and worldwide. It is a festive occasion in which participants are encouraged to adorn themselves in their most frivolous party gear and to join the fun. Last year over 2500 people took part.

The ‘Walk for Life’ is an event hosted by ‘Crusaid’ that involves many different HIV charities, HIV sympathetic celebrities and volunteers. 

The NAT is dedicated to transforming society’s response to HIV and changing the lives of people diagnosed with this disease by providing practical and financial support.

This is the third consecutive year that Archie has walked for NAT and this year his target is to raise £1000 for his charity.  If you would like to sponsor Archie and help him to achieve his aim, please click on
http://www.walkforlife.co.uk/public_individual_sponsorship.php?ID=452


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