Who Lives, Who Dies
My internist cousin says he knows who will live and die among his older patients: those who own dogs.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) provisionally agrees. They believe the data show that dog (and cat) ownership can lower:
Feelings of loneliness
Cholesterol and triglyceride levels
While increasing –
Chances for exercise and socialization
So how do we get all these benefits from another species?
Two Different Species of Social Animal
In “Dog Sense” anthrozoologist John Bradshaw argues we should not look at dogs as small wolves. Humans and dogs have co-evolved for at least 20,000 years.
And both of us were – and are – very social animals.
Humans pack themselves into cities where thousands live in the same building – and millions in the same congested space. Wolves can run in packs, but often operate in cooperative, multigenerational families. Wild dogs living near humans appear less hierarchical and more prone to cooperation than wolves.
Each species views the other through its own preconceptions.
A recent Hungarian study shows demonstrates dogs are constantly watching their owners, looking for body language for signs of what they will do next. Stare at a dog and it may follow your eyes wherever they gaze.
Bradshaw argues that dogs now respond to humans with a sort of arrested development – failing to develop the maturity they possess in the wild.
Humans in turn often respond to dogs as if they were infants or children. We smile when we see them. We hug them. We even dress them like small kids.
Both species are aided by such exchange. Humans can receive sometimes unconditional love, while dogs receive shelter, food, affection, and stability.
Social support is a major factor in human survival. It can decrease cardiovascular disease, depression, perhaps some tumors.
Yet dogs “see” the world very differently from us.
Smell Brains and Visual Brains
Dogs have a powerfully developed rhinencephalon – smell brain. Their sense of smell can be 10,000 to 100,000 times more acute that ours.
For humans it would be as if we could see on the microsopic level simultaneously visualizing with exceptional clarity for fifty miles in every direction.
Dogs live in a different sensory universe.
We come to a field and see – a field. A dog senses its present inhabitants – and many that have been there over the past few days or weeks. Most of its fellow dogs have left traces, making that space a giant social networking field – a sort of olfactory Facebook.
Much of the information received by the human body and brain is not conscious. We create and respond to pheromones, hormones sent through the air – yet we don’t know we do.
Dogs sense those hormones. They can smell our skin and sense our stress levels. They’ll know many things about us we don’t – because they smell them.
And that sense of smell also makes them like to walk.
Walking for Health
Humans are natural walking machines. Yet many of our present social arrangements – whether it’s computer monitors, cars, or desk jobs – suppress this natural tendency.
At great loss to our health.
Dogs can overcome this huge public health error. They like to roam, travel, weave, trot – and sniff.
We owe them the opportunity to fulfill that sense of adventure.
Dogs often cause their owners to walk. Walking can improve mood, heart function, biological clock syncrony, plus our natural capacity and pleasure in social existence.
Dogs can help humans a lot. (Cats are wonderful, too; they just don’t tend to walk their human compatriots quite as much.)
To get the most pleasure from dogs it probably pays to try and think like your dog – at least now and again.
You can try to see the world the way a dog does – as visual, social – and powerfully olfactory.
Getting out in the environment is immensely useful to dogs. They find out about the rest of the community – human, canid, and other. They need to sniff the world.
When they go out we go out – increasing the information flow into our lives. Walking twenty to thirty minutes a day can make you grow new brain cells – in memory areas – that you can really use.
By walking with your dog you create new information – and new information storage.
That walk can calm and pleasure your dog – and provide you new adventures, too.
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