For Companion Animals

Day Six: Gratitude for Companion Animals

When placed up there next to some of the other massive issues (yesterday I was talking about global food security, for example), the blessing of having a companion animal in one’s home at first doesn’t seem to be in exactly the same league.

But human-animal bonds are ancient and strong. I have argued on this blog in the past that the history and development of humans would have been considerably different without domesticated animals–especially dogs (dogs are my ultimate favorite animals, so I admit I’m sorely biased).

It’s a really incomplete picture to leave out cats, horses/donkeys/mules, cattle/oxen/water buffaloes, sheep, goats, swine, chickens and other poultry, rabbits, guinea pigs, camels, and llamas, though. Indeed, without mice, rats, and other animals, our medical history also would have progressed much differently.

But this post is particularly concerned with companion animals–the very dearest pets, the ones we invite into our homes, and often consider to be members of the family. Readers of this series with exceptionally good memories will recall from the latter paragraphs of Monday’s post that I do consider ours to be family members.

We have several decades’ worth of studies that affirm their value, at this point, though the unenlightened in Western society still all too often insist “it’s just an animal.” Poor things: they simply have no idea.

I can personally attest to the importance of companion animals for meeting people and staving off loneliness (yes, that’s me in the photo above, with my current dog Jake). The very best way to meet people in our neighborhood is to take the dog out for a walk.

As to staving off loneliness? My dearly-loved Chihuahua-MinPin mix (who stayed right beside me through three successive bouts of pneumonia one horrible winter, and who still is featured in my Facebook profile pic) died the Christmas before both of my kids moved away to college and took all the other resident animals with them. With my Beloved working extremely long hours, if I hadn’t gotten my little Iggy-girl Brenna that following November I think I’d have gone into an even deeper depression from sheer loneliness.

My daughter spent more than a year, living mostly–except for her animals–alone in California, doing hard, undervalued work as a caregiver to an elderly relative. She did make friends, but her animals helped keep her sane. They still do, even as she faces new challenges.

I also can attest to the beneficial effects of companion animals on children. In my family’s case, two Border Collies and a Bernese Mountain Dog-shepherd mix helped my Beloved and me rear our kids, assisted by several cats and an assortment of gerbils and hooded rats (at our church, my daughter became known as the “gerbil-whisperer” for good reason!).

It is perhaps needless to say that I believe that the initiatives to use therapy animals for everything from the “reading dogs” who help beginning readers strengthen their skills to the “comfort animals” who visit hospitals and hospicesdisaster sites, and nursing homes are well-advised to tap into the almost-magical connection humans have with companion animals.

I’m a strong believer in the value of the human-animal bond. As our society splinters into ever-smaller family units and as people “cocoon” in their homes more and more (the telecommuting fad seems to have peaked, but internet sales still continue to gain on actual face-to-face shopping in brick-and-mortar retail stores), humans’ essential, social-animal nature hasn’t changed. It’s healthier to connect with an animal than with nothing and no one at all. I could argue that our animals are one of the last things keeping us connected to ourselves.

The health benefits of companion-animal ownership–both mental and physical health–are well-documented and hard to dispute. The soul-benefits are harder to define, but no less important.

IMAGES: The “Seven Days of Gratitude” design is my own creation, for well or ill. If for some reason You’d like to use it, please feel free to do so, but I request attribution and a link back to this post. Likewise, the three quotes from Allan M. Beck and Marshall Meyers all were extracted from an article by “Anna” on Ethical Pets The Blog, but the photos are variously by my daughter and me, of ourselves and some of the dogs in our lives. I did the design work for all three of those quote-images. Feel free to re-post them, but please include an attribution and a link back to this post. Thanks! The Jane Goodall quote image is from the Eco Watch site, from a post by “True Activist” last April. The Anatole France quote image is from One Green Planet (featuring a photo by Wendy Piersall), via Pinterest. Many thanks to all!

Kids reading to dogs benefits the DOGS, too!

A few weeks ago, I posted an article, Canine reading tutorsabout the growing popularity of using therapy dogs to boost children’s literacy.

Kids who read aloud to dogs never get corrected when they say a word wrong or spend time puzzling over it, and they never get hurried up if they read slowly. Instead, the dog lies next to them, warm and reassuring, and always seems to like being read to. It’s a great confidence-builder.

But could it also benefit the dogs? Perhaps surprisingly–yes! Last March, NBC News featured a story about a new idea in a St. Louis animal shelter. Kids read to dogs in the shelter, to help calm and socialize the dogs. I’m sure the extra practice didn’t hurt the kids any, either.

Here’s a video that tells a bit more about the program:

The human-canine bond is an old and mutually-beneficial one, as I’ve written before. I don’t know about you, but I loved seeing another way in which that connection is still going strong, after all these millennia. I’d also like to thank The Dodo, for its feature on this program. I happened upon this story there, first.

IMAGES: many thanks to the Huffington Post for the photo of the little girl reading to the dog, and to NBC News for the photo of the girl and the shelter dog, and YouTube, for the video about the program.

Working dogs: Canine enslavement, or a fulfilling life?

2010 03 22 Lap Full O Dogs-Detail
Iggies all round: two of mine, plus two foster puppies.

I’ve almost never been without a dog in my adult life (and those few months were pretty grim). 

Dogs are easily my favorite kind of non-humans. 

This is perhaps not all that surprising: humans have lived in something of a symbiotic relationship with dogs since prehistory, and our two species have been cohabiting and co-evolving, literally for millennia (since the Neolithic). 

There’s actually a pretty good case to be made that, without our dogs co-evolving with us to guard us and help us hunt, haul our stuff, and keep our livestock in line, we humans might not be as successful a species as we are. Indeed, from that perspective people who don’t like dogs really seem kind of ungrateful, don’t they? 

Couldn't resist this cartoon by Tony Hall, from a National Geographic article about the evolution of dogs and humans.
Couldn’t resist this cartoon by Tony Hall, from a National Geographic article about the evolution of dogs and humans.
The ingratitude of humans notwithstanding, one could also debate whether hooking up with humans has ultimately benefitted the dogs. Certainly it has changed them, both outwardly and inwardly–from the way they look and act to what they can digest.

Wolves OnceThere’s also a contemporary debate, among humans who DO value dogs, over whether they should be made to work or not. 

It doesn't exactly look comfortable, but is it animal enslavement?
It doesn’t exactly look comfortable, but is it animal enslavement?

Some people say that dogs with jobs–even dangerous jobs, such as sniffing out IEDs in Afghanistan–are happier and more fulfilled than dogs whose existence is mostly occupied with eating or sleeping. 

Too little stimulation and interaction can lead to serious problems.
Too little stimulation and interaction can lead to serious problems.
In developed countries today there’s a rising tide of difficulties for pets, especially if they’re left at home alone for too many hours, and perhaps crated the whole time. They tend to develop issues, such as separation anxiety or neurotic behavior from too much idleness, and obesity that often stems from too little exercise or free-feeding that leads to overeating from boredom. 
Is a domestic pet (unfortunately prone to obesity and separation anxiety) really better off?
Is a domestic pet (unfortunately prone to obesity and separation anxiety) really better off?
Please review that list I made above: guarding, hunting, hauling (sleds, travois, carts), and livestock-keeping. Those are all jobs that dogs have done for ages . . . and it’s probably because some of their earliest ancestors more or less “volunteered” for those jobs. I don’t buy into the idea that humans were so brilliant they could look at wolves out in the wild, and intuit that they could be domesticated to do all those jobs.

Some partnerships are a natural outcome.
Some partnerships are a natural outcome.

No, the natural capabilities of dogs, and their basic nature–combined, I am convinced, with the bonds that develop between individual humans and the individual canines who live with them–led the members of both species to stumble, together, onto the idea of the dogs doing these jobs.

Resource Guarding: it's a Dog Thing.
Resource Guarding: it’s a Dog Thing.
Dogs are naturally territorial, “resource guarding” creatures–and we humans definitely fall into the category of “resources” for most dogs. From there it’s a short step to a role as “Head of Ranch Security.” Hunting and herding also stem from things dogs do naturally, even without humans around. 

On duty or off, a dog needs a purpose in life. Just as people do.
On duty or off, a dog needs a purpose in life. Just as people do.

I guess you can tell I place myself into the category that thinks dogs benefit from having a mission in life. And now, if you’ll excuse me, my personal trainer Jake (the tan-and-white IG in the front of the top photo) tells me it’s time for a walk (of course, he’s just doing his job . . . ). 

Do you have any “working dog” stories to share? please put them in the “Comments” section below!

IMAGES: Many thanks to my daughter Signy for the photo of me in my favorite recliner with four Italian Greyhounds. Many thanks to National Geographic and cartoonist Tony Hall, for the “campfire moochers” image. Many thanks to the HumorHub Subreddit, for the “Wolves Once” image, to Pete Somers’ Pinterest Board for the “holstered attack dogs,” to Stamp Right Up’s Pinterest Board for the “bored so took up scrapbooking” meme, and to Dog Medicine Info, for the photo of the bored dog. Thank you to Darwin Dogs for the “Shepherd/Sheepdog Conspiracy” image, to Boredom Kicker’s Pinterest Board for the unworried kid with three German Shepherds, and to Payton Phillips’ Pinterest Board for photo of the Gizmo-snuggling terrorist-hunter. It’s been a pleasure finding these images, and I greatly appreciate their creators!