It's not just about walkies
Of course, going walkies regularly and being more active can improve your physical health and reduce your risk factors for certain diseases, but did you know about the positive impact your canine companion can have on your mental and emotional health?
Dog owners the world over will no doubt have experienced the positive benefits that studies are now evidencing without even realising, but for some settings and age groups, the therapeutic effects of spending time with animals are at the heart of their approach to improve health outcomes. Schools have been using trained therapy dogs to help ease anxiety and separation issues for kids and improve their reading abilities, whilst prisons, hospitals, retirement and funeral homes have also shown that the presence of dogs (and even horses!) can reduce feelings of isolation and depression by giving owners a sense of belonging, responsibility and purpose. It seems that our furry friends appeal to the very core of our human nature, they help us feel connection, provide unconditional love, and don’t judge us. This is significant if you find it difficult to build these kinds of relationships with people and is also one of the key reasons why pets work so well to help calm those with autism and reduce some of the anxiety associated with Alzheimer’s.
That happy, loved sensation is not just an emotion, it also promotes a biochemical change in levels of certain hormones in your body that can be measured. Several studies have shown that as well as human-to-human contact, human-to-dog contact also increases levels of the ‘love hormone’ called oxytocin in our body, and even more so if you gaze into those puppy-dog eyes for two minutes or don’t mind a pooch-smooch! If you’re feeling stressed, just sitting with your dog, giving them your full attention for 30 minutes, talking to them, stroking or patting can also increase your levels of oxytocin. Oxytocin is amazing for its natural painkiller effect, as well as lowering stress levels and blood pressure.
Let the dogs train the humans...
We can also learn a great deal from our canine companions in the way they interact with their environment. In our fast-paced modern world where we work long hours and lead busy lives, taking time out with a dog is a fantastic way to balance out the busyness by slowing down and literally smelling the flowers. Have you watched how your dog interacts with their environment, smelling everything, watching everything (chasing everything)? Take a minute to do the same (perhaps not the peeing in the bushes 😉), take it all in, smell the roses, listen to the birds, and feel the ground under your feet. The great outdoors is a fantastic classroom and space to reconnect with nature for which your dog is an excellent teacher. The Japanese even have a word for this kind of interaction with nature shinrin-yoku or ‘forest bathing’, which can also reduce your pulse rate and decrease depression, fatigue and confusion . We are certainly spoiled in New Zealand for the beautiful places and scenery we can take advantage of.
And if you don't have a dog of your own, why not offer to walk someone else's? It's no wonder so many dog-walking businesses have popped up over the past few years, now that's a job with health benefits!