Petting a dog makes people feel better. It’s not in our heads, and it’s not wishful thinking on the part of dog lovers. It’s science.
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Petting a dog decreases levels of stress hormones, regulates breathing, lowers blood pressure and releases the hormone oxytocin, which is associated with bonding and affection. Medically speaking, people who pet dogs literally feel better.
But the comfort provided by dogs is not limited to the passive act of standing to be pet. Psychologist Debbie Custance of Goldsmiths College, University of London, led a study to determine whether dogs actively show empathy. Working from the observation that “dogs are social creatures that respond to us quite sensitively, and they seem to respond to our emotions.” Custance asked volunteers “to either pretend to cry or just ‘hum in a weird way,'” according to National Geographic, who reported on the study.
The response blew everyone away.
Pretty much every single dog approached to tend to the criers, even if they were perfect strangers. The hummers went unnoticed.
These are just some of the canine qualities that led people like Tim Hetzner, leader of the Lutheran Church Charities K9 Comfort Dogs team, to come to see dogs as “counselors with fur.” Hetzner and his team of 10 specially trained golden retrievers and their handlers traveled from Addison, Ill., to Newtown, Conn., the day after a shooter invaded Sandy Hook Elementary, killing 20 children and six adults and haunting an entire community.
Hetzner says the dogs “have excellent listening skills, and they demonstrate unconditional love. They don’t judge you or talk back.”
Turns out the “not talking back” bit is huge. According to Hetzner, “The biggest part of (the dog handlers’) training is just learning to be quiet.”
Custance underscores that point. “When humans show us affection, it’s quite a complicated thing that involves expectations and judgments,” she told National Graphic. “But with a dog, it’s a very uncomplicated, nonchallenging interaction with no consequences. And if you’ve been through a hard time, it’s lovely to have that.”
Therapy dogs have long made their mark in hospitals and nursing homes around the world. They draw smiles and forge bonds in programs developed for at-risk children. They aid in the rehabilitation of prisoners and the healing of soldiers suffering from PTSD. They calm the anxious and give confidence to the blind. And they provide comfort in times of tragedy.
It seems so simple, doesn’t it? A friendly approach, a patient presence, a quiet sounding board, a soft coat, a cold nose.
Sometimes simple can be so powerful.
Dog trainer Matthew “Uncle Matty” Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs, a behaviorist, a popular radio and television guest, and host of the PBS series “WOOF! It’s a Dog’s Life!” Read all of Uncle Matty’s columns at www.creators.com, and visit him at www.unclematty.com. Send your questions to[email protected] or by mail to Uncle Matty at P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs 95619.
Copyright 2012 Creators Syndicate Inc.