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Four Legged Physical and Mental Therapy

The multiple benefits of dog ownership

It seems that in our house we have ticked all the pandemic cliché boxes.

We have baked banana bread, walked everywhere and cut each other’s hair. We haven’t bothered baking sourdough, preferring instead to make the Saturday morning trip to Cornrue Bakery for bread, coffee, cakes and socially distanced socialising.

We have barbecued, been swimming and stand-up paddling in Clew Bay. We’ve staycationed and outdoor dined and vaccine passported and all of those things. I even became a Covid cliché try-hard dad and bought a skateboard.

Then, a few months ago, we ticked what seems to be the final box for now and got a puppy. A ludicrously cute little beagle if you were wondering.

There used to be an ad in Australia reminding us that pets are for life, not for Christmas. The idea being that you should remember the dog will grow out of its cute phase and still need looking after in six months’ and six years’ time. It should also be taken as read that between chewing on things, doing their business whenever and wherever they need to and generally being toddler-like, a puppy will take over your life.

Although, as it turns out, this is no bad thing. Pets have been shown to have numerous health benefits for everyone in the family.

Did you know that children who are exposed to pets in their first year of life are less likely to develop allergies as they grow? Interestingly, this seems to be ‘dose-dependent’; whilst having one pet reduces the likelihood of having allergies, having more than one reduces the risk further. Essentially more exposure leads to more protection.

There is also a psychological benefit for children when it comes to having a pet. A study from the University of Western Australia last year found that pre-school children from dog-owning families were 30 percent less likely to engage in antisocial behaviours, 40 percent less likely to have problems interacting with other children, and were 34 percent more likely to engage in considerate behaviours, such as sharing.

It should be noted that these changes were attributed merely to the presence of a dog in the house. Kids who played with their dog three times a week were 74 percent more likely to engage in considerate behaviours. For adults, there are obvious health benefits to owning a dog. Just owning a dog has been shown to reduce blood pressure, heart rate and stress levels, but the exercise associated with dog-walking increases that significantly.

One study in 2019 showed that dog owners were four times more likely to meet the guidelines for daily physical activity than dog-less subjects. They found that dog owners spent nearly five hours a week walking their dog, compared to around 100 minutes walking for people without a dog.

However, there are also numerous psychological, cognitive and social benefits to owning a dog that you might not have considered.

Firstly, dog ownership reduces feelings of loneliness; it’s both obvious and surprising. Having the company of a pet goes someway to compensate for a lack of human company. Those who have lost loved ones often talk of the saving grace of having a pet to talk to and walk with to help them through their grief.

Other research has shown positive effects of pet therapy on cognitive function for people with mental illness in long-term care and reductions in agitated behaviours and improved social interactions in dementia patients.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to us has been the increased social interaction. Apparently dog people stop and chat to other dog people. A lot!

Every walk involves chatting to several strangers, or more accurately, several strangers wanting to pat the ludicrously cute puppy while talking to us. In fact, my wife was walking the dog last week and two different cars pulled in to pat the dog. Yes, you read that right. Two people stopped their cars to pat the dog and chat to my wife, in that order!

Dogs aren’t for everyone, and there are reports everywhere of sad stories about dog-shelters being full of unwanted lockdown dogs. As the saying goes, a dog is for life. And for a multitude of reasons, that dog just might make your life longer and happier.

This post was first published in The Mayo News

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