No wonder they’re man’s best friend. Deborah Wells of the Canine Behaviour Centre at Queen’s University Belfast has surveyed the literature and found widespread evidence for the benefits that dogs can bring to our physical and psychological well-being.
While acknowledging the methodological weaknesses of research in the area, Wells writes that “…the domestic dog may be able to prevent us becoming ill, facilitate our recovery from ill-health and predict certain types of underlying ailment”.
For example, a study in 1995 found “Dog owners were roughly 8.6 times more likely to still be alive one year after a heart attack than those who did not own a dog”. Meanwhile a study in the Lancet reported the case of a dog who repeatedly sniffed a mole on its owner’s leg that turned out to be malignant. “Tumours typically produce odorous compounds…the dog, with its olfactory acuity, may be able to detect these compounds, even in minute quantities”, Wells said. Other work suggests dogs may be able to use facial expressions and postures to predict the imminent onset of an epileptic seizure, and use their sense of smell to detect hypoglycaemia in diabetics.
Regarding psychological health, research has shown dogs can ameliorate the effects of stressful life events such as bereavement and divorce, reduce anxiety loneliness and depression, and enhance feelings of autonomy, competence and self-esteem. “Dogs may also help promote psychological well-being indirectly through the facilitation of social interactions between people”, Wells said. For example, a study found walkers experienced significantly more chance conversations with strangers when accompanied by a dog, than when alone. Other research has documented the benefits dogs can bring to nursing homes, prisons, and to the disabled.
“The dog should not be regarded as a panacea for ill-health in humans. Nonetheless, the findings from this overview suggest that this particular companion animal can contribute to a significant degree to our well-being and quality of lives”, Wells concluded.
Wells, D.L. (2006). Domestic dogs and human health: An overview. British Journal of Health Psychology. In Press, DOI: 10.1348/135910706X103284