Last year a DNA study confirmed dogs to be not only our “best friend”, but also likely our very first one, dating back at least 11,000 years to the last Ice Age. What makes the domestication of dogs even more remarkable is that it was done when humans were still hunter-gatherers—while cats, for instance wouldn’t be domesticated for another 5,000 years, once we had begun to settle and farm. There are various theories as to how this intimate interspecies relationship came to be, with the most prevalent being that dogs likely descended from wild wolves that had become ever more comfortable around humans, stealing, then accepting scraps, until tame enough to serve as hunting mates and guards.
Everyone knows what wonderful companions canines make, with study after study proving they do everything from strengthening our immune systems to reducing blood pressure and boosting our mental health. While it’s pretty common knowledge that those loving interactions with our furry friends causes spikes in ‘cuddle chemical’ oxytocin in both hound and human (I have a Staffie puppy snoring on my lap as I type this!), the connection could even have evolved to be on par with that of parent and infant—for those crafty canines are capable of hijacking the same parts of the brain usually reserved for the likes of mother and child bonding. Fascinatingly, a Japanese study that examined this most wholesome of interspecies relationships found it to be so unique that similar brain responses were not present even in wolves that had been raised by humans.
“Dogs successfully coexist with humans because they have adapted the bonding mechanism [used in] relations with humans,” says study author Miho Nagasawa, of Azabu University. “On the other hand, humans also likely went through some sort of evolution that allowed them to bond with another species.”
An amusing British study a couple of years ago asked participants to make £5 donations to rescue “Harrison”, with half of the adverts showing a picture of a baby boy, and the other half adorned with an image of a young pup. The dog raised more cash. An experiment by Boston’s Northeastern University also found that injured puppies elicited a stronger emotional response than even an injured baby, with researchers concluding that the subjects did not view their dogs as animals, “but rather ‘fur babies’, or family members alongside their human children”.
So, it’s little wonder that in these most stressful of times, we’re turning to (hu)man’s best friends for comfort. As the pandemic—then lockdowns—took hold over the past year, dog fostering and adoptions both soared. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) nearly doubled the number of dogs it fostered, while here in Aotearoa, the SPCA has reported similar spikes. Following last year’s main lockdown, it was reported that demand for therapy dogs in Aotearoa doubled.
To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring — it was peace. – Milan Kundera
Canine Assisted Therapy
Therapy dogs are used to calm folk in all manner of stressful or anxiety-inducing situations such as in hospitals, nursing homes, schools and scenes of even scenes of disaster; Auckland oculoplastic surgeon Dr Katheelya Strang-Veldhouse has begun training one for her patients.
“I’ve been with the ADHB Greenlane Eye Clinicfor about 10 years now,” she says. “When I remove an eye, the patients are sent to see the ocularist for their prosthetic fitting—though I am now learning to make the prosthetics—which is like sending them into the abyss, before I eventually see them with their artificial eye. But I’ve always felt a bit incomplete with regards to my ability to treat my patients, which is why I am am now learning how to make ocular prosthetics myself.”
Considering getting a family puppy for Christmas anyway, Kathleeya decided they should get one that can be trained to also soothe her patients in rehabilitation and opted for a golden doodle (golden retriever poodle cross) that has been named Bodhi.
“I wanted to have the temperament and intellectual ability of it being a working dog, while shedding little and being hypoallergenic,” says the doctor. “He’s still doing basic training, learning to sit, stay still and not get excited while we jog around him! He’s still a real puppy, but he’s a good boy in general.”
And already showing great promise. Kathleeya and Bodhi are working with the Perfect Partners Assistance Dog Trust, as well as KURI Dog Training.
“Perfect Partners have accepted Bodhi as a Facility Dog to work alongside me in the eye clinic. A facility dog is a type of therapy dog where Bodhi will be extensively trained to work with me in this clinical setting.”
Aside from simply providing a comforting presence, therapy dogs can be trained to sense dangers or changes in human behaviour. If, for example, an autistic child is on the verge of suffering an emotional meltdown, the dog will calm them by climbing onto their lap. It has also been shown that therapy dogs can help lower symptoms of depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety. They’ve even been used in schools to help kids with learning disabilities gain confidence, and as a motivating tool.
“Creating a prosthetic is a very drawn out process that requires sitting in a chair for several hours,” says Kathleeya. “It’s an extremely emotional day for the patients, and there’s been a lot of research and work around the benefits of animal assisted therapy in this area.”
And it’s not just the humans that benefit, studies have shows therapy dogs to have higher levels of endorphins and oxytocin than most regular family pets.
“I’ve been really excited and encouraged by talking to patients about it,” adds Kathleeya. “Bodhi will probably find other uses in the eye clinic, too. We’re a really busy department, with a paediatric clinic as well. So, his role might include helping patients with low vision as they look towards their options for the future, through experiencing the therapeutic benefits of interacting with a specially trained dog. But first, it’ll be about calming patients and offering support. We’re just at the start of the journey, and we’ll see how it progresses.”
My daughters’ names are Talia Veldhouse (age 9) and Mikayla “Miki” Veldhouse (age 6). They have been great help as junior handlers! The larger golden retriever in the photos is Addie, Belinda’s disability assist dog.
Dogs For All Seasons
A dog’s sense of smell is so powerful that they sniff in part per trillion—this essentially means that could detect a tablespoon of substance in an area the size of two Olympic-sized pools.
Such an olfactory capacity means they can not only detect drugs attempted to be smuggled across borders, but even detect disease in people. They’re also showing great promise in sniffing out coronavirus infections—a service that may prove invaluable at airports.
Similarly, allergy detection dogs can be used to alert children of potentially life-threatening ingredients such as peanuts or gluten.
Diabetic alert dogs, or ‘dads’, are trained to alert their owners to take action upon changes in their blood sugar levels before it reaches the point of debilitation.
Similar to seeing eye dogs, hearing dogs will, through touch, inform their human’s of alarms, door bells or crying babies.