Best Friends with Benefits: How adding a dog to your family can help the whole family
By Elsie Lodde
Founder of Recycled Pets NorCal
Dogs benefit people in general by lowering blood pressure, decreasing stress, get their family to be more active, increasing immune systems and they do all of this while boosting self-esteem. This emotional attachment and unconditional love between a dog and their humans can be exceptionally beneficial for seniors, physically, mentally, or learning challenged people, as well as other groups such as battered women and even for prisoners. If you have been thinking about adding a dog to your life, here are some reasons to put in that application and adopt.
Dogs Help Children to Read: Many children struggling with reading are frustrated and embarrassed. These feelings can stand in the way of their improvement, but studies have shown, having children read to dogs helps them learn to read. Children don’t have to worry about a dog judging them or correcting them so they can feel better about reading aloud and this one-on-one time with Fido makes it so much more enjoyable as well (and the dog is just happy to spend time with his humans he loves). Children are more likely to want to practice reading when they read to a dog and in one 10 week study, they found children who read to dogs improved by 12% (while those who did not read to dogs made no improvement).
Dogs Help Teens with Self-Esteem: We all know being a teenager is hard. Most of us felt like an outsider at some point in time or another. A healthy self-esteem means that someone feels special and loved. They feel like others accept them and that they are important. Dealing with hormones and trying to figure out who you are can be very hard for anyone causing self-esteem to be in flux. Feeling worthless and being rejected by peers is one of the reasons that suicide is one of the leading causes of deaths amongst teenagers. This is where a dog can make a huge difference as a dog never judges, doesn’t offer awful advice (or tell them to do stupid and dangerous things), and just accepts and offers unconditional love. The added benefit is that being responsible for a dog can also show teens about the need of putting the needs of others first (perhaps a great lesson for those thinking about families) and gives those with depression a reason to get out of bed in the morning. These benefits are actually seen across the ages and dogs are therapeutic to adults and also provide the same benefits to adults as well.
Dogs offer Therapy: There has been an understanding for decades about the benefits of animals to humans in hospital situations. There are several kinds of therapy dogs, at the hospital I work at, some dogs are trained as companion animals (they also know how to open doors and other skills) but their primary function is to get the owner (child) seen. Sadly, people in wheelchairs often get ignored by people. For some reason, people are uncomfortable and don’t know how to speak to a child in a wheelchair, so their dog is often a way to get strangers to recognize and speak to them as well. Allowing them to be visible and to feel a part of their community.
For some, animals can be therapeutic in other ways. Researchers have found that people who stare into the eyes of their pet release oxytocin (the same one that is released after childbirth to bond you to your child and in sex as well). This may be one of the many reasons that therapy dogs lower pain, emotional stress, lower stress hormones and in the hospital setting this can lead to better outcomes and shorter stays. They even found that dogs can help autistic children lower cortisol levels by almost half which means can help not only with health of children but also behavior.
Last Saturday, we had a sweet boy and his caretaker come to an adoption event. One of our small puppies was placed on his lap, his caretaker took the boy’s hand and stroked the normal rambunctious puppy, but she just laid there and went to sleep. His caretaker told us, from her perspective, how much animals benefited him. That he moved a lot more with an animal around and he seemed more aware. It melted my heart because obviously Raylin knew what her job was (which is usually jump all over and lick) and just laid there. I think it was pretty heartwarming for us all, and probably reduced all of our cortisol levels watching this interaction.
Dogs and Seniors: We mentioned over and over again how pets can help improve the health of an owner and also allow for more social interaction (both of which are important for seniors as well), but one of the other benefit to adding a new pet for seniors may be mental stimulation. “A new pet can stimulate someone to read up on an animal or breed, which can be very mentally stimulating and important at that age,” says Dr. Katharine Hillestad. A pet can give a senior a reason to wake up in the morning and fight to stay healthy for longer.
Of course with seniors there are some concerns with a new pet, a puppy or a high energy dog is not a good fit for most seniors, so finding the right dog with the right temperament can be a bit more difficult. That is why finding a rescue who uses fosters can be great in helping determine which animal may be the best fit for a senior. Also, cost should be considered as pets can be expensive (especially those who need grooming, special diets etc). And lastly, a plan should be in place for if something happened to the owner, what would happen to the pet. And older dog in a shelter can be a death sentence.
Things to Remember: Bringing a dog home is bringing home a family member, not something that should be done on a whim. Not all families are able to take on the financial and time commitments of a pet, so doing what is best for all members of the family (2 and 4-legged) is important. If you are unsure if a dog would fit into your family, you might want to consider fostering for your local rescue group or shelter.