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Are You Healthier If You Own A (Hunting) Dog?

The benefit of having a hunting dog in the field is obvious to bird hunters. There are also hidden benefits to owning a dog, any kind of dog. We likely know these benefits subconsciously. Let’s look at them overtly.

Researchers in psychology and human medicine call it the “pet-effect,” a benefit in terms of psychological and physical well-being from dog ownership. Researchers try to be imaginative to design psychological or physiological studies to understand the core of these animal-human relationships. Documented benefits include adolescent psychological well-being, boosted child immunity, increased health and post-surgery survival among older adults, and community benefits.

Apparently, 35% of Canadian families own one or more dogs. If one could add up all benefits provided by roughly 6 million dogs, it would be enormous. The benefit is recognized world-wide. I suspect that the pet benefit would compare favourably with, if not exceed, the benefits derived from sport or art.

Benefits for children and adolescents. In a study of 77 U.K. families with children aged 12, Matthew Cassels and others used the ‘Network of Relationships Inventory,’ to compare the degree of companionship and satisfaction children gain from their siblings compared to their pets. The study included cats and dogs but dog owners reported more satisfaction than did owners of other pets. Statistical analyses of interview responses showed that children derived more satisfaction and encountered less conflict with their pets than with siblings. Boys reported more just-plain satisfaction than girls. Girls, in contrast, reported more companionship and child-to-pet communication, or closeness, than did boys.

The authors summarized key features in the beneficial child-pet relationship and describe it as therapeutic. The authors find that the relationship may be “particularly important during adolescence as teens move away from a reliance on their parents and siblings, and towards alternative attachment figures such as romantic partners, peers and potentially pets.”

Dogs aid immune development. J.D. Bufford and colleagues studied immune-system development in young children in the U.S. The authors explored just how exposure to pets could work to boost the internal defenses in a child’s body. They included 289 newborns and followed them to age three. They studied allergens and immune-system chemistry from blood samples, and also analyzed dust in homes with dogs.

“Many hunters have proven that dogs can be capable hunters in the field, and can help raise kids in the family to become happy, healthy and responsible adults.”

The authors concluded that “exposure to dogs, and not cats, was associated with a unique pattern of immune development and lead to reduced risks of atopic dermatitis and wheezing.” These results are consistent with recent research on allergies in children living on and off farms. Jocelyn Kaiser states that research results run counter to common expectation. Research offers “new support for the so-called hygiene hypothesis, a 26-yearold idea suggesting that our modern zeal for cleanliness and widespread use of antibiotics have purged the environment of microorganisms that once taught a child’s developing immune system not to overreact to foreign substances.”

Of course, allergies are a serious issue in our time, but it appears that early exposure to dogs can be part of the solution and not automatically a problem. Naturally, there are parasites to consider from pets and a sensible approach and attention to a dog’s health is clearly necessary.

Dog-ownership benefits for healthy or recovering adults. In a study of 206 owners of dogs (67%) and cats (33%) in Israel, Yaniv Kanat-Maymon and co-authors documented the kinds of human psychological needs that pets can satisfy. The authors used interviews structured according to a so-called Self-determination Theory to explore the kinds of motivations that prompt people to acquire and care for pets.

The most consistent explanations why people had pets where three-fold:

  1. Having pets satisfied people’s needs for ‘autonomy’ as reflected in the statement “When I’m with my pet, I’m free to be who I am.”
  2. Competence “… I feel like a competent person.”
  3. Relatedness “… I feel loved and cared for.”

Having these basic human needs satisfied by a pet can be particularly important for people who feel vulnerable or are ill. Naoko Aiba and co-workers followed 244 patients in Japan who suffered from heart trouble and kidney failure. They measured changes in heart rate and tested blood from pet owners and non-owners. They found that patients with coronary artery disease had a significantly greater chance to survive past one year when they owned a pet than non-owners. This increased survival of pet owners was backed up by findings of a stabilized heart rate and improved nervous system coordination.

Being careful about pitfalls that can lead to false conclusions, Karen Allen reviewed 14 pet and human health studies. One study posed the question whether people who are disposed to take pets into their lives might at the same time be predisposed in some independent way to be healthier. In one study, stockbrokers were chosen for their high stress profession and 50% received pets and the other 50% did not. Stockbrokers who were given pets had blood pressure increases too, but theirs were less than half of the increases of the non-pet group. In the final analysis psychologists and medical professionals are convinced that the health benefits from owning a pet are real, especially from dogs.

Decklan and Whiskey-Jack enjoyed a close friendship starting early in life. Research would suggest that Decklan has better than average immune function because of it. (Photo Meagan Smith)

Dogs improved interactions between people. In an altogether different analysis, Lisa Wood and co-workers studied the roles dogs play in elevating social capital, or, elevating the glue that holds communities together. They studied pet owners and non-owners randomly selected for telephone interviews in four cities, in Australia and the U.S. The interviews were designed to rank people on a social-capital scale including the following parameters: General helpfulness, Friendliness, Trust, Reciprocity, Civic engagement and Neighbourhood networks.

Owners of dogs and other pets had significantly higher social capital scores than non-owners. Furthermore, owners of dogs scored higher than those with other pets. Finally, dog walkers scored higher on this scale than owners who did not walk their dogs. One of the explanations of the results is that people who own and walk dogs are seen as more trustworthy. Owners who walked with their dogs were greeted and approached more often by members in the local community under the belief that anyone who cares for a dog is more caring and trustworthy than the average person.

Wood and others suggest that “…pets are an under-recognized conduit for building social capital and strengthening the social fabric in communities.” The author’s policy recommendations are for local housing bylaws to enable the keeping of pets, and for having pet-friendly cities with appropriate space for the walking of dogs.

More Than A Best Friend

Many hunters have proven that dogs can be capable hunters in the field, and can help raise kids in the family to become happy, healthy and responsible adults. To advance this more-than-a-friend benefit, breeders can try to balance a dog’s motivation to hunt with calmness and intelligence to make hunting dogs also fun to live with.

When our dogs next bring a bird that would have been lost, let’s applaud their ability. While such achievements will be long remembered, let’s also remember the many other, and dare we say, even bigger contributions the dog makes for the family during the other nine months of the year.

By Joe Schmutz

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