January 1st, 2017

Ask me about my granddoggie

Some of the nicest people I know have dogs. Either their number is increasing or they are poised in an ever-tightening circle around me until I shall soon hear nothing but their heartwarming stories of canine companionship.

The stories are seductive and so are the photos, proudly displayed on smart phones or sent in text messages and emails. It’s enough to make me go out and get a dog. On the other hand, dog ownership is a big responsibility and not something to take lightly, especially not if you are just starting to enjoy the freedom that comes with retirement.

Enter Sofie, a three-year-old Schnauzer/terrier mix, a ball of brown and caramel-colored hair with a face that is all nose and eyes, ready to sniff out and pierce the heart of her special person.

Rescued from a shelter and waiting for a home, Sofie ambushed our daughter as she was taking a shortcut through a parking lot where an animal rescue agency had lined up about a dozen dogs in crates.

Whining and writhing against the door of her crate yet never taking her eyes off the passing woman, Sofie staked her claim right in the middle of our daughter’s heart.

She had been mourning the death of her beloved cat for several months, learning all she could about owning a dog, and thinking about getting a puppy when love struck without warning.

The woman in charge of the operation let our daughter take Sofie for a walk in a nearby park, where the little dog showed her best behavior, refraining from barking at other dogs and small children and apparently enjoying the outing.

Our daughter called with the news of her new pet and texted the first of many pictures of what I would soon be calling my granddoggie. Of Sofie’s history, we knew only that she had been a street dog when she was picked up by animal control and that she was probably only a week or so away from death row when the rescue group got her.

I hadn’t even met her yet but just seeing her pictures and hearing the excitement and affection in my daughter’s stories of their first days together filled me with outrage and pity that dogs like this one were routinely killed for want of homes.

The Humane Society reports that every year, 2.7 million dogs and cats are euthanized in the United States simply because too many animals come into shelters and too few people consider a rescue dog or cat when looking for a pet.

If more people brought these animals into their lives, the Society believes there would be a dramatic reduction in the number of euthanized dogs and cats. When you take a rescue animal, you not only save that life but you open up a space in a shelter for another animal who might desperately need it.

When it comes to meeting important needs, a dog gives as much as it gets. The Web site, DogVacay, lists 10 reasons why dogs are good for your health including reducing blood pressure, cholesterol, the incidence of heart attacks and the overall number of medical problems among their owners.

While anecdotal evidence of the emotional benefits of the animal-human bond has been around for centuries, systematic research into the topic did not begin until 1961when Dr. Boris Levinson presented a paper at the APA annual meeting.

He described how a severely disturbed and uncommunicative child took his first tentative steps toward social interaction by talking to Levinson’s dog, Jingles.

Today Animal Assisted Therapy is widely practiced in psychotherapy offices and in nursing homes, hospitals, and psychiatric facilities where specially certified dogs are regular visitors.

You don’t have to be facing significant health challenges to benefit from the companionship of a dog. An online article of July 11, 2011 on the APA Web site summarizes the findings of psychologists at Miami University and St. Louis University who concluded from a series of experiments that pet owners had greater feelings of wellbeing, “greater self-esteem, were more physically fit, tended to be less lonely, were more conscientious, were more extraverted, tended to be less fearful and tended to be less preoccupied than non-owners.”

It is no wonder that people love their dogs but do their dogs love them? Dr. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist who directs Emory University’s Dog Project, would answer a resounding yes. Berns used functional MRI scans to demonstrate that the reward center of a dog’s brain reacts selectively to the odor of its owner even when the owner is not present.

Dr. Brian Hare of the Duke University Canine Cognition Center found that dogs will take a treat from their owners more readily than from strangers.

Don’t rely only on the scientists. Here’s what poet, John Brehm, has to say about a dog frantically waiting for its owner outside a café. “And when she does come, what a flurry/of commotion, what a chorus of yelping/and cooing and leaps straight up into the air! /It’s almost unbearable, this sudden/fullness after such total loss, to see/the world made whole again by a hand/on the shoulder and a voice like no other.”

It reminds me of Sofie. Did I tell you about my granddoggie, Sofie? Would you like to see some pictures?

Alan Bodnar, Ph.D. is a psychologist formerly at the Worcester Recovery Center and Hospital.

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.

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