In an ancient grave in Israel, around 12,000 years old, archaeologists found quite poignantly the skeleton of a man cradling a puppy. This offers a potent symbol of how the unique and precious relationship between us and our beloved dogs extends many, many thousands of years before the first Christmas.
But Christmas is a fitting time to remember the many gifts that dogs bring, both for human society and for many of us as individuals. These presents may not be set under the tree wrapped in glittering paper or tied with trailing red ribbons, but are far more precious, important and enduring. Some of them you might be expecting, but some of the others that we unwrap in this article may come as more of a surprise.
For us dog-lovers this makes it even more sad and harrowing to read reports of how many unwanted dogs, particularly in the wake of recent lockdowns, will be spending Christmas in dog homes. Or even more tragically, find themselves placed on list to be euthanized for want of a suitable home.
So with all this in mind we will consider the real and tangible benefits of bringing a canine companion into your lives. So as you cuddle up to your dog on a sofa, by a warm blazing fire, possibly settling down to watch ‘Lady and the Tramp’ or ‘101 Dalmatians’, here are 10 more reasons to give your dog a loving pat on the head.
#1 Improving Mental Health
Let’s face it. the last couple of years have not been easy for many people. But for those lucky enough to be a dog owner, it has actually been proven in various different studies that the companionship of a dog improves your mental health.
However bad life gets, dogs offer the reassurance of not only a positive, warm relationship and they reciprocate affection. Interactions such as patting and stroking are therapeutic for both you and your dog. Playing games with your dog and watching them enjoy the simple pleasures and joy in life, prompts considerations of what is actually important. Do some of the things that cause us stress in life really matter that much?
Dogs also offer the reassurance and support of routine. Routines are crucially important in helping “us to create positive daily habits that promote self-care” . A routine gives us a sense of order, and makes us more resilient to unforeseen changes and unpredictably in other areas of our life. Anyone who has watched the particularly excellent and moving ‘Afterlife’ starring Ricky Gervais explores this as a grieving widowed husband only reason to get out of bed is to feed his dog . If you haven’t seen it, another great watch for you to enjoy with your dog over the festive period.
This means the routine of feeding and walking our dogs is hugely beneficial to us even if we are not aware of it. This routine is also based around caring for another, rather than ourselves, which offers a ‘feel-good’ factor which researchers have linked to the hormone Oxytocin which the mere presence of our precious pooches promotes .
#2 Not so Lonely this Christmas
This is not even to mention the simple fact that if you are alone with a dog in your life, you are never truly alone. Isolation can have a huge impact on a person’s mental health and having a dog in the home can be a real life-saver.
A relationship with a well-socialized dog is relatively uncomplicated as they will always reciprocated affection and they are non-judgemental. This is what makes them so widely used successfully in therapy, offering a connection for people with conditions such as autism and a range of communication issues. This is because dogs act as ‘social catalysts’ as their presence and simple interactions create security and comfort for those who have difficulty relating to others.
This also means that anyone who finds relating to people difficult or is suffering from any kind of mental trauma, such as that inflicted by bereavement or change of life circumstances dog ownership can be literally a real life-saver.
For those singletons who just prefer not to live with another human being, scientific studies in Sweden have shown that dog ownership not only prevents them feeling isolated, but also offers the mental and emotional support reflected in better health and a significantly lower risk of dying from conditions such as cardiovascular disease .
#3 Meeting New People
Outside of the home dogs also help combat isolation and encourage us to have more social interactions. In the first place they motivate us to leave the house as we find ourselves cajoled or dragged out of the door by our excited pooches.
Once we do step out of the door, a Harvard study found that people with dogs are around 60% more likely to develop social relationships in their community . As noted about dogs are a social catalyst. You meet a stranger with a dog, and you know immediately that you have common interest. People who love and care for dogs tend to be ‘nurturing’ with a positive mental outlook, which further helps dog-owners make connections.
Also dogs themselves are every gregarious creatures, and have a tendency to play or be happy to sniff and wander around in each other’s company. Life can be very busy, but as the poet W. H. Davies wrote:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”
Our canine friends offer a rare excuse in our busy lives to stand and chat. Also dog ownership cuts across all areas of society so it brings together people from a range of backgrounds and ages. Some people have even claimed to have formed romantic attachments through their dogs. I have not seen any studies on this, but if ‘Lady and the Tramp’ is anything to go by, then I like to think that this must be true.
#4 Experiencing Unconditional Love
Even if you do find romance through your dog, we are all old and wise enough to know that the course of true love never did run smooth in human matters of the heart.
Let me ask a different question to contextualize this. As you walk into your house after a hard day’s work will your partner run around the house a couple of times in gleeful joy at your mere presence? If yes, I apologise for my cynicism, but we can all count on our dogs for this, and it makes even the worst day that little bit brighter.
On the other hand will your dog get angry with you if you forget an anniversary? Will they expect you to spend money on Valentine’s day?
Let’s put human relationships to the side one moment and consider the dog’s great rival. I love cats as well, but with albeit graceful economy of movement, their general first reaction to your appearance is usually a determined movement towards the food bowl. Dogs are also generally very food-oriented, but they do have the politeness and good grace to put on an enthusiastic show of greeting first.
In other words nothing can get anywhere near the unconditional love of a dog. As the comedian Josh Billons said so aphoristically “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
#5 Reduced Stress Levels and Healthy Hearts
For some of us Christmas can be the best of times, but also the worst of times. Even for those of us who find tinsel, decorations and the mellifluous sound of carols enchanting, the Christmas holiday can also mean a lot of hard work and preparation as well as ensuring everybody gets on during the festivities.
But one member of the family who will generally not only avoid squabbles of any kind, but whose mere presence is calming and therapeutic, is the family dog (perhaps unless you are the family cat). Having a dog reduces your stress levels and has been shown scientifically proven to reduce blood pressure levels . This is particularly the case when we pet and interact with our dogs.
Our humble little furry friends therefore can have a direct impact on our coronary health and play a part in ensuring a healthy heart. In the unfortunate event of having a heart attack, dog ownership has been shown to aid in convalescence and survival rates.
More generally other studies have found that dog owners have statistically less visits to the doctors .
So not only do our canine best friends find a way into our heart, they keep them healthy as well!
This gift nestles very close to gift number 6 under our metaphoric Xmas tree. Not only do dogs reduce stress by their mere presence but also on their uncompromising insistence we move off the couch, ok sometimes grudgingly, and get a good bit of exercise at least once a day.
How many of us have had to get a running partner or exercise buddy to motivate us and encourage providing what I think they call ‘accountability’? Well, no person makes us feel quite as accountable as an enthusiastic, pleading dog who needs their morning perambulation ( I find synonyms for the word ‘walk’ become quite useful in avoiding your dog getting over-excited too many times a day).
The health benefits of a good half-hour walk per day or more have been shown to be huge for all areas of physical and mental health. Come rain or shine (or even perhaps snow), our dogs rely on us for a walk, and we must oblige. In this way our dogs are keeping us healthy occasionally in spite of ourselves.
Another wonderful thing about dogs is that you have a range of over 200 breeds to choose from. This means with a little bit of research you can select a dog that matches your lifestyle and exercise needs. If you are a marathon runner you may opt for an athletic breed like a Siberian Husky, Dalmatian or Doberman Pinscher to name just a few.
If you are elderly, frail or debilitated it is possible to choose a dog that is commensurate with your recommended exercise levels. A dog from the Toy Group, such as a Chihuahua or the very popular French Bulldog are just two options of dogs with moderate exercise needs to get you outside without overdoing it.
#7 A Healthier Digestion System
You can be rest assured that all of us dog-owners will have the ‘opportunity’ to walk off that extra helping of Xmas Pudding while the less fortunate slumber hedonistically by the fire. But in all seriousness being encouraged to walk after a meal helps with glucose absorption and digestion. A healthy digestion system is therefore another gift that your dog will just keep giving all year.
#8 Encouraging Children to Develop Responsibility and Empathy
Owning a dog does have physical and mental benefits for us, but most dog owners and enthusiasts would agree, that it also makes us better people. But this is one gift from our dogs, that we can pass on directly to our children.
When we bring a dog into our home, we take on a huge responsibility. This may be a new and wonderful world for a puppy or dog, but the human world is also potentially confusing and distressing for a canine, and they need our support, training, leadership and care to ensure they feel safe and confident.
Any children in the household should be actively encouraged to play a role in caring for a dog. This will help develop empathy in children as wall as engendering a sense of responsibility in caring for a fellow creature who is dependent upon you. Another bonus, of course, is that exposing children to the wonderful creatures that are dogs will lead to a new generation who will both love these precious companion animals and understand their needs.
And Guess what? Dogs can have health benefits for our children too. A study based in Finland has also revealed that young children from doggy households had fewer colds and infections . Researchers thought that dogs inevitably bring in a range of dirt and foreign bodies, exposure to which toughen up a child’s immune system. So dogs not only help look after our physical welfare, looks like they also play a salutary role in our children’s health.
#9 Encouraging more quality family time
Remember how when we unwrapped gift 3, we discovered that dogs act as ‘social catalysts’; that dogs nurture a common interest. This is also true within a family. Not only do dogs offer a common interest, but also a variety of common activities within a household such as walking and playing in the garden.
This means a beloved family pooch becomes a source of family fun and smiles offering precious opportunities for family bonding away from any form of screen.
#10 The Great Outdoors and our Relationship with Animals
During the various lockdowns across the world a number of mental health organisations highlighted the mental health benefits of just being outside in the natural world. According to the Mental Health Foundation the benefits range “from gaining a sense of peace and a boost to our self-esteem, to improved concentration and the psychological restoration” .
So not only do our dogs promote our mental welfare themselves, but insisting on taking us out on walks regularly we are also gaining mental quietude and health by finding ourselves surrounded by nature.
Also our connection with our dog allows us to effectively bond with nature even if we live in an urban sprawl . This is not only good for our well-being but it fosters a deep respect for the natural world and other species, as well as a desire to be good custodians of it.
So the humble dog that has walked faithfully beside us over thousands of years as our society has evolved, may also play a modest part in helping to preserve our planet and the rich variety of life it supports.