Family Walking Dog Through Winter Woodland

The Prescription to Good Health

By Shelly Korobanik

The health benefits of having a pet!

Have you ever sat in a quiet room and just watched fish swimming in an aquarium? Or relaxed on the sofa with a purring cat sleeping on your chest, or pet your pooch’s head resting on your lap? What about listening to singing birds or going out horseback riding? All of these experiences can provide an incredible sense of serenity and calmness—something we all can use a little more of in today’s crazy world! Whether it’s reducing one’s anxiety, blood pressure or heart rate by creating an environment of calmness, or dogs that can detect types of illness, there is no denying the health benefits of interacting with an animal.

There has been relatively little research done in this area; however, you don’t have to be a scientist to realize the immediate stress reduction that occurs when you have had a hard day at work, or an argument with a spouse or friend, and return home to be welcomed by your tail-wagging pooch—you can’t help but smile! In addition to being a friendly companion to come home to, dogs have been known to be good for one’s health in a number of areas. They can be trained to detect various kinds of cancers, serve as an alert to low blood sugar levels in diabetics, and can warn those with allergies of any allergens in an area. The rate of eczema has been shown to be lower among children who lived with a family dog, and other studies have found that people with a dog in their life walked almost double the amount of time per week than those without a dog.

Research has shown reduced blood pressure and heart rates when one spends time with therapy animals, and has found that dogs can encourage mobility, interpersonal contact and socialization, thereby reducing feelings of loneliness, especially among the elderly or those with physical disabilities. It is not surprising that residential homes for the aged often have a resident dog, cat and/or birds, and that hospice and hospital facilities have adopted therapy dog or cat programs for their patients. Studies have found reduced pain ratings and improvements in mood and comfort levels, when patients are with a therapy animal, and preliminary findings show reduced stress and better moods are experienced by health care professionals within as little as five minutes of interaction with a therapy animal.

The use of specially trained therapy dogs is widespread; seeing eye dogs assist the blind navigate their day-to-day activities while seizure dogs help warn of oncoming seizures and other therapy dogs assist people dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other anxiety-related illnesses.

In addition to therapy dogs, therapy horses have proven to be beneficial for calming and soothing children with autism and Asperger’s. The rhythmic motion of riding a horse can help an autistic child to focus on the movement which is slow, deliberate, and relaxing. In addition to developing improved motor skills, tactile senses are stimulated, which can help draw a child out, stimulate development of their verbal communication skills, as well as interest in investigating other physical objects. It may begin with making eye contact with the animal first, then with other people. This new-found self-confidence can increase a child’s desire to learn additional skills away from the riding ring, and improve their overall mood to a more positive one.

I am not a scientist, researcher, physician, or psychiatrist, but I know from my own life the benefits I have experienced, and observed others experience through relationships with animals. As a child I recall sharing my sandwiches and conversation with our family dog on the doorstep. Whether I was sad or mad, after talking with our dog I always had a smile on my face and felt better! I also remember the valuable life lessons learned from my pet goldfish named Bubbles as a youngster. Bubbles taught me the importance of being dependable and responsible—if I didn’t feed him and change his water, no one else would! When Bubbles passed away, I learned how to cope with loss, and yes, there was a funeral with a matchbox casket. Throughout my life I have been privileged to benefit from the soothing benefits from a purring cat, the positive energy that a choir of birds provides at the start of every day, the serenity and freedom that can be experienced during a horseback ride, and the sheer joy of exercising in the great outdoors with my dogs. During my three-month home recovery from a brain aneurysm, my elderly collie was by my side and was my incentive to get out and active as my recovery progressed. As my parents aged and their health deteriorated, they always smiled when they pet the dog and I knew in the moment they were happy and content regardless of everything else life had thrown at them.

Animals can help us to develop self-confidence and coping skills, something we all need in order to handle life’s challenges. They can provide a serenity and calmness to the pressures of our daily lives and unforeseen events that nothing else can compare to. They can encourage interaction with others, improve social skills, motivate one to exercise, and reduce stress and anxiety—all of which plays a role in being mentally and physically healthy throughout one’s lifetime.

My prescription for a happy and healthy life will always include animals. Whether it’s a bird, cat, dog, horse, ant farm, fish or potbellied pig, never underestimate the amazing benefits that interacting with these creatures can have on our health, from childhood through to our senior years.

Shelly Korobanik, certified personal trainer and professional dog trainer, is the owner of Pooch Partners®, a business that combines her passion for fitness and love of dogs to promote outdoor activities for people with their pooch. In addition to fitness classes, learn-to-run programs, cani-cross,  skijoring, weight pulling, agility, and obedience training, Pooch Partners® hosts an annual Doggie Duathlon, Trail Hiking series, and Raise the Woof comedy show to raise funds for local animal charities. Visit www.poochpartners.ca or email bark@poochpartners.ca.

*Reprint from our Fall 2015 Issue

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