AltHealth: Do-Good Dogs

After years of research, science has come to the realization that pets can play an important role in our mental and physical health. With apologies to cat lovers, the newest studies have found that dogs are especially beneficial. The sheer number of skills and services they can provide boggles the mind.


For many years, it was believed that dogs contributed to allergies in children. Newer research shows just the opposite is true – having a dog in the family can actually lower a child’s chance of becoming allergic to pets by up to 33%; the exposure seems to boost their overall immune systems as well. And a 2011 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that children were significantly less likely to develop eczema by age 4 if they were raised in a house with a dog. This remained true even for kids sensitive to dog allergens. Something else to think about, with the rise of childhood obesity: Children with dogs spend more time in vigorous physical activity than kids without dogs. 


As you grow in life, if you keep a dog by your side, you’re more likely to continue to stay active. Dog owners, on an average, walk over twice as much as their dog-less counterparts. For some reason, dog owners also tend to have a healthier diet than other pet owners, which contributes to a better cardiovascular health. Dog ownership in general reduces stress, betters our self-esteem (you are, after all, the star of your dog’s life), and makes us more social. But the benefits go even further – 


In 1989 the British journal The Lancet published the first cancer detection by a dog. Two dermatologists reported a patient’s story: Her dog spent several minutes each day sniffing a small lesion on her thigh, and even tried to bite it off. When she came to their office, concerned, the doctors discovered that the lesion was a malignant melanoma. Similar reports of dogs detecting malignant melanomas followed, but it wasn’t until a 2006 double blind study at Krems University Hospital in Austria that the fact was confirmed – trained dogs can detect specific cancers by sniffing biological samples. The 300 million smell receptors in their noses are all the equipment they need. New research suggests that dogs can identify early stage cancer in blood samples with 97% accuracy, a record that leaves our most sophisticated medical testing equipment in the dust.

But your dog’s keen sense of smell can do far more than detect cancer. Diabetic alert dogs can detect when blood sugar levels are becoming dangerously low, giving owners time to remedy the problem. Dogs can also be trained to predict the onset of a seizure from signature odor chemicals. According to Craig Angle, co-director of the Canine Performance Sciences Program in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Auburn University, “The dog is a natural bio sensor, preprogramed with 30,000 years of evolutionary algorithms.” This sounds like science fiction, but the super-human powers these animals have are very real. Their sense of smell is, literally, 10,000 times better than ours. To get a sense of what this means, let’s make an analogy to vision: What a man with 20/20 eyesight can see at a third of a mile, a dog could see more than 3,000 miles away, with the same visual accuracy. Consider this: Los Angeles, California is about 2,500 miles from Providence. A dog’s nose can “see” 500 miles further than that.


In 2001, when disaster struck at the World Trade Centers, The National Disaster Search Dog Foundation (NDSDF) deployed their own first response teams. Search dogs can enter collapsed buildings and seek out survivors buried far beyond the reach of human search teams. Ironically, all of the dogs that NDSDF recruits were found, abandoned, at shelters. What frustrated owners saw as behavior problems, trained handlers recognized as the spark of a potential warrior. These rescued dogs throw themselves into their jobs with a joyous intensity that is a wonder to behold.


After 9/11, many children were traumatized so badly they couldn’t even speak to the counselors who tried to help them. It was only when therapy dogs were brought in to provide comfort that the children began opening up again. Therapy dogs are now regular visitors at hospitals, brightening the mood of patients. As companions, guide dogs for the blind and hearing impaired and been serving Americans since the late 1920s. Today, canine care giving skills are specialized to an extraordinary degree – the Psychiatric Service dogs that provide assistance to those with post traumatic stress disorder are capable of managing their owner’s flashbacks in crowd situations, fetching medication and even dialing 911 in the case of emergency.  

The coolest thing about dogs is that they do it for the joy of doing. If a person had all the capabilities of a highly skilled service animal, they’d want the highest pay grade and perks for their efforts. Not a dog. Got bacon? A chew toy? Play ball? That’ll do it. Nothing makes a dog happier than to make us happy. 

For more on dogs, visit your local dog park.