This Animal Awareness Week we’re taking a little look at the amazing human-dog bond. Dogs and humans have co-evolved since their domestication somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. In many ancient cultures, dogs and humans became completely reliant on one another for food and safety- and it’s not that different today. Whether it’s a shepherd bringing in his flock or a blind dog guiding his owner through a crowd, we humans really can’t do without our canine companions.
The History of Domestication
It is thought that dogs were domesticated twice- one group of dogs from the European wolf and one group of dogs in Asia from the Asian wolf. This goes to show just how useful this domestication must have been; that two separate groups, speaking two different languages, living thousands of miles apart and never having met, could come up with the same life-changing idea. All dogs today, however, are descended from the Asian domestication- the European pack of dogs went extinct sometime around 6400BC, shortly after migrating people brought the Asian dog with them. Whether the Asian dog was more docile, more trainable or more easily bred we don’t know, but they spread quickly. Dogs ended up entrenched in hundreds of different cultures. In Egypt, they were connected to the god Anubis, and in Ancient Greece, the god Artemis had a pack of hunting dogs. Despite being connected to gods, and even given god-like burials, dogs weren’t routinely considered as pets- at least not here in the UK- until the 1700s. Before this, lap-dogs were rare and considered somewhat embarrassing… but in 1768, at long last, dog beds were for sale- indicating a shift from outdoor working animals to pets. In the next 100 years, dogs would go from merely being allowed inside to ‘man’s best friend’.
The Human-Dog Bond Today
Nowadays, the human-dog bond is the subject of much research- there is even a Human-Animal Bond Research Institute (HABRI) who fund and collate research papers into what animals mean to us. It turns out that animals, especially dogs, are extremely good for us- they improve our mental health, they keep us fit, and they even improve our immune system.
‘Emotional Support Animal’ is the badge being given to many pets these days, and it’s certainly true that being around animals makes us feel good. Science has shown that stroking an animal releases oxytocin, the ‘happy hormone’- as does meeting our dog’s eyes. In fact, 74% of people in one study said that owning their pet had improved their mental health.
Social Support and Loneliness
Pets in general, and dogs in particular, make great companions. One study found that 80% of people reported feeling less lonely thanks to their pet; 52% also felt that their pet helped them meet new people. This is especially true of dogs who need regular walking- and meeting a fellow dog-lover on a walk is a great way to bond.
Anxiety and PTSD
Stroking with and caring for animals has been shown to reduce anxiety in the young and old. For some people, the sense of routine and the feeling of being ‘needed’ is important. For others, that oxytocin rush we get when we stroke our pets is important. And for sufferers of PTSD, canine companions have been shown to improve their ability to cope with flashbacks and lower their anxiety level.
Learning Disorders and Autism
Dogs have been used to encourage children to practice reading. Schools and teachers have reported that children that struggle with reading due to a learning disorder particularly benefit from having a dog listen in on their session. Watching the children grow in confidence is very rewarding for all involved. Researchers have also found links between animal contact and increased social awareness and motivation in children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Let’s not forget what dogs can do for our physical health, too. Those regular walks aren’t just good for your dog, they’re good for you. The HABRI institute reckons that pet owners visit the doctor less often than non-pet owners, saving the US economy $11.7 billion. The Australians calculate their savings thanks to pet ownership at $3.86 billion annually.
This is mostly because owning dogs has been shown to increase the level of human activity and reduce obesity. In fact, dog owners were 57% more likely to be physically active than non-pet owners. This regular exercise, along with the natural de-stressing effect of owning a dog, helps to lower your blood pressure and reduce the chance of lifestyle-related diseases such as diabetes.
Novel Uses for Canine Companions
We humans are expert at finding uses for our dogs. In fact, almost every breed around today looks and behaves like it does thanks to selection for traits for a ‘job’. Newfoundlands, for instance, were bred to drag fishing nets, and dachshunds are perfectly shaped to go down into burrows and flush out rabbits and badgers. Collies are highly intelligent, capable of learning hundreds of commands. Nowadays our needs have changed. Newfoundlands are now used in marine rescues, and dachshunds are more likely to be used as therapy dogs. Collies are trained for agility, as well as still being used for sheep herding. Spaniels are often used as sniffer dogs- they’re being trained to detect everything from bombs and illicit goods to cancer, or low blood sugar.
In other words, dogs and humans work well together. Whether it’s training dogs to diagnose cancer earlier, dogs that give an expertly-timed lick to a PTSD sufferer, or the humble companion Labrador, the human-dog bond has never been stronger, or better understood.