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updated: 8/1/2017 7:37 AM

Companionship with dogs has many health benefits for humans

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  • Dr. Lisa Freeman and her dog Penny enjoy visiting eldercare, memory care, high school and college stress relief events, Girl Scout troops and reading programs for kids.

    Dr. Lisa Freeman and her dog Penny enjoy visiting eldercare, memory care, high school and college stress relief events, Girl Scout troops and reading programs for kids.
    Courtesy of Beth Oram

 

"Why do people have dogs?" asked a STEAM camper at Mundelein High School's third annual summer camp for middle school students.

Wagging tails, furry faces, giant sloppy kisses. Dogs have a way of softening even the toughest of times. It's plain as the wet nose on a dog's muzzle that dogs have worked hard to earn sidekick status.

Why dogs? Dogs make an immediate connection to people that drives them to be physically close. Scientists discovered a genetic basis for the companionship trait. Researchers are now working to quantify the vast health benefits of the dog-human relationship, proving dogs can improve health outcomes for people.

"We gain many benefits from having dogs in our lives -- whether they're working dogs or just our companions," said Dr. Lisa Freeman, veterinarian and director of the Tufts University Institute for Human-Animal Interaction.

Researchers at the institute, and others at universities across the country, are delving into data that supports the benefits of the relationship between people and dogs.

Studies show people with dogs have lower cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and can realize better outcomes with depression. Cardiac patients with dogs bounce back sooner. You've probably seen dogs on the job at airports or in other safety situations.

Dogs are also put to work to prevent illness. They've been trained to detect epileptic seizures and some cancers.

Since the 1970s, the human-animal interaction has been a focus in institutes like the one at Tufts University, as experts from a variety of disciplines conduct research and develop methods to optimize these experiences. Freeman anticipates results from the research will create new opportunities.

"These are key areas for TIHAI so that we can enhance our understanding of all the ways humans and animals benefit one another's lives," she said.

Therapy specialists such as Susan Burrows, program manager at Rainbow Animal Assisted Therapy in Morton Grove, witness the emotional and physical benefits of therapeutic dogs daily.

"We serve 30-plus schools, libraries, area hospitals," Burrows said.

The organization's dog-and-handler units are on call 24/7 to respond to emergencies, such as the recent opening of Illinois Emergency Management Agency and Red Cross outposts in northern Illinois due to area flooding.

Burrows brings her dog, Abbey, to area hospitals and even visits Kohl Children's Museum regularly to help children learn how to properly greet dogs.

"Dogs help patients gain skills," she explained. "Stroke patients who need to relearn how to eat might take a fork and feed the dog. Children with muscle disorders can find it easier to practice walking when they walk the dog, accomplishing strengthening goals. I've watched kids on monitors whose heart rates slow when the dogs are there and kids who might be on pain pumps who don't use the medication the whole time the dog is visiting."

Patients have fond memories of their experiences with dogs.

"We're invited to a picnic at a summer camp for brain tumor survivors with 800 to 900 people," Burrows recalled. "Kids run up to us and say, Abbey, do you remember me? You saw me when I was 6 and now I'm 9."

Of course, families enjoy bringing a dog into their homes because of the values gained when children share in walking, feeding and general animal safekeeping.

"Dogs are wonderful companions that give unconditional love to their owners," Burrows said. "No matter how you feel, your day will brighten when you pet or play with a dog."

The biggest reasons why people have dogs might be the simplest -- they're loving companions who will take you for a walk, play with you and wag their tails every time they see you.

Owning a dog, or any pet, is a big responsibility and there is a financial commitment. A good way to learn about the duties involved in pet care is to help a neighbor with their pet.

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