When we pet our dogs or even just silently admire them, a hormone called oxytocin travels from the pituitary gland through the bloodstream to the heart, where it slows pulse and lowers blood pressure. Oxytocin is also carried by neuronal (nerve cell) pathways to social and emotional centers of the brain—the so-called limbic system. It activates these centers and causes feelings of affection and bonding along with a decrease in anxiety as it inhibits the amygdalae, our “alarm system.” So, now you know why your dog often makes you feel happy, loving, and relaxed. You are responding to your pet much as you would react to your girlfriend or boyfriend!
So it is that dogs have become emotional support animals and are even used as part of psychological therapy. For example, combat veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Syndrome Disorder, when given dogs as companions, often find their symptoms become less severe, their distress at least partly relieved.
Dogs can also be trained to detect the symptoms of a panic attack. At the first signs of an episode (sweating, trembling, etc.), the dog will place its head against the patient’s body. Such tactile, canine reassurance may reduce the intensity of the panic or even end it.
Autistic children have been shown to benefit from having a dog. In the presence of their pet, they often become more verbal and social. Dogs also seem to help prevent the emotional meltdowns that afflict many autistic children.
And, of course, dogs are a good influence on everybody. They amuse with their play and may alleviate the emptiness of living alone. Older dog owners—with lower blood pressure and a sense of purpose as they care for a pet—tend to live longer than seniors who have no animal companion.
Moreover, dogs are “essential beings,” not acculturated, not corrupted by social norms. As they unabashedly beg for food or steal from another dog, they remind us of how much hypocrisy and deceit exist in human society.
Dogs do have memories of the past and can even anticipate the future. Nevertheless, they live in the present where mindfulness meditations aim to take us. Dogs live in the Eternal Now which we try to experience through Quaker worship. When we look lovingly at our dogs, we sometimes catch a glimpse of the Spiritual Presence found in Nature, its creatures, and—we hope—our meetinghouses.
The material for this short essay was taken from four podcasts: Chasing Life, Speaking of Psychology, The Happiness Lab, and We Can Do Hard Things. The individual episodes were The Health Benefits of Pets, Exploring the Human-animal Bond, Let Slip the Dogs of More Happiness, and Pet Love: Are Animals the Closest We Come to Unconditional Love?
~ Annie, Bentley, and Richard Russell
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