My favorite photography subjects of all: dogs and their owners

For years I have photographed dogs, from Greenland to Alaska to the tropics. I particularly like photographing dogs and their owners. There is something special that happens when you capture them in their element. The owner’s face muscles are relaxed. They usually are smiling. There is some magic that is hard to quantify and describe.

During the last few months I was able to photograph a couple of dog owners and their beautiful companions. It does not take an expert to see what kind of happiness, and all its related health benefits, that dogs bring to people.

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Dogs and pets provide meaningful therapeutic benefits

A smile and a wag — the universal language of happiness.

Today I read yet another article on the healing power that dogs have for humans who have experienced trauma, in this case sexual abuse. According to a Sept. 23, 2012, story in the Seattle Times (Courthouse dogs calm victims’ fears about testifying), King County Washington’s seven-year-old practice of using assistance dogs to provide comfort to victims in a courthouse setting has been deemed legal in an appeals court ruling. I have previously written about how pets are used in prison settings, leading to better outcomes for both the state and prisoners (see my May 3, 2012, post: Cats behind bars — more proof of how pets bring out our best). I do not think it is a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the value of using therapy dogs that dogs could and should be used to assist young persons who are crime victims. They are commonly used by many people with illnesses and disabilities, like this instance with a college student who has spina bifida.

The powerful bond between humans and dogs is well-known and about as old as civilization itself.

In this particular case reported by the Seattle Times, a lab-retriever mix named Jeeter helped two female victims of molestation heal and also testify in trial, as a means to alleviate their reported fear and discomfort. The decision deemed the dog to be a neutral agent, not siding with either party in the legal process and being an equal opportunity dispenser of affection. As one of the two females victims told the Seattle Times, “What we want people to know is that they can have a dog to help them, too. We’re not ashamed about what happened. We didn’t do anything wrong.” In fact, the Seattle Times reported the National District Attorneys Association passed a resolution last year supporting the use of courthouse dogs.

Another famous instance of therapy dogs being used to assist crime victims was at the campus of Northern Illinois University, where a murderous gunman killed five students and injured nearly two dozen others in 2008.

As the final report on that gun-related massacre from NIU highlighted, in addition to more than 500 counselors who assisted victims and the campus community, there were dozens of volunteers who assisted by bringing “comfort dogs” to the NIU campus in DeKalb, Ill., after the shootings. The report noted, “many of our students hugged those wonderful dogs and wept openly, some for the first time since the tragedy.”

A wonderful book that I read this summer on the powerful bond between humans and other species called Kindred Spirits: How the Remarkable Bond Between Humans and Animals Can Change the Way We Live, by DMV Allen Schoen, highlights how powerful this connection is, including on the health of humans and the species with whom they interact. Schoen has attracted attention for research and efforts exploring the ways science and larger culture understand how humans interact with their many animal friends. His description of his former golden retriever, who he rescued and who then became his assistant caring for his animal patients, is wonderfully touching. He eventually had to put his beloved assistant down. When I shared this book with a member of my family, she broke down into tears, thinking about her former dog.

My former grad school experience vastly improved when I moved into my new apartment and made friends my always cheery neighbor, Balloo.

Schoen has his own web site and a blog here: http://www.drschoen.com/. His web site notes that he continues to practice what he calls integrative veterinary healthcare, which brings together holistic and natural techniques such as acupuncture and homeopathy along with the best of conventional veterinary medicine to provide animal healthcare services.

There are peer-reviewed journal articles being published about the power of animals, including in the work setting, where an abundance of anecdotal reporting and research has occurred. An Associated Press story from Feb. 9, 2012, described the “growing phenomenon” of dogs in the workplace in America, according to Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri’s College of Veterinary Medicine, in Columbia. “People are realizing we need to do things to reduce stress in the workplace,” Johnson told the AP. She said dogs can build connections among co-workers and create healthy diversions from work. People interacting with dogs have a hormonal reaction that causes them to “feel more relaxed and more positive.”

All I can say is that nothing beats a dog or purr on a bad day. Even the worst day improves the moment there is that amazing interspecies contact.

Running, an evolutionary high humans share with our canine companions

NPR science reporter Christopher Joyce this month profiled the research of University of Arizona anthropologist David Raichlen and his hypothesis that humans are, basically, adapted to run. Well, they are not so much as adapted, but literally “wired to run.”

Kikkan Randall, Holly Brooks, and Cedar Bourgeois blast off at the start of the July 4, 2010, Mt. Marathon mountain race in Seward, Ak.

Raichlen’s lab’s research focusses on: evolutionary biomechanics, linking physical activity to physiology and neurobiology in humans and other critters, and studying energetics and activity levels in human hunter-gatherers and other critters. Raichlen’s team is trying to link these elements to paint a picture of how aerobic activity levels impacted our evolution.

The story quotes Raichlen, who says: “Wired to run, meaning that our brains are probably, have been sort of rewired from an evolutionary sense to encourage these running and high aerobic-activity behaviors.” The theory by some anthropologists assumes that early humans learned to run long distances in order to chase down and exhaust prey, like antelopes. The evolutionary payoff for this difficult activity would be survival in the form of all kinds of goodies – nutritious and healthy food, particularly protein, not to mention clothing and bones for tools.

However, Raichlen believes there was another reward: the so-called “runner’s high.” This high is the release of naturally produced body chemicals cannabinoids, similar to the chemicals in marijuana.

This treadmill-running-pooch photo is found on the Neuman K-9 Academy, Inc. web site at: http://www.mndogtraining.com/article_treadmill.html

I find this term misused and applied to different sensations, which some say is “euphoria,” but I mainly link to the relaxed feeling that follows runs. As a lifelong runner, I can personally testify to what I believe to be the “runner’s high,” and the sensation running provides to my mental mood, overall body feeling, and attitude. And the absence of running, in my case and in those of my many running friends, definitely induces withdrawal symptoms, irritability, and poor moods and worse performance in other activities.

Raichlen and his researchers designed a test to determine if other distance-running mammals also produced those drugs. He did that by putting ferrets and dogs on treadmills and taking samples of their blood. Turns out that dogs, who are also are built for distance, produced the drug and the ferrets did not (ferrets are not built for distance).

The team’s paper was published in the Journal of Experimental Biology in December 2011, which of course is locked behind a firewall that the general public cannot access without paying a hefty fee, a frustrating feature of the marketplace of publicly-funded science and the monopolies that control the publication of peer-reviewed journals (but I digress).

Doing the traditional “show off your stuff” run at the Alaska Kennel Club Show, February 2008.

I also find it, again, interesting how dogs and humans share this trait and seem amazingly co-adapted to share this wonderful activity of running. I personally have never been able to tell if humans or canines enjoy running more than the other. I just know that humans and dogs usually have that same wonderful expression of contentment when they finish their outings. It is the look of bliss, and if Raichlen is right, it is an evolutionary advantage.

More research on why humans bond with dogs

The latest viral news story this week, about a black lab that stood guard over its dead canine companion on a busy Los Angeles road, once again highlighted the virtues of dogs that forever fascinate many Americans. The dog’s loyalty won over millions of news watchers, who saw videos and pictures of the sad scene of a dead dog and its frightened companion not budging from the scene.

Would a human do that? Or would we just drive off? We would like to think our good Samaritan instincts would prevail, but we know that with a dog, that type of devotion is unquestionable. And so our love of dogs increases even more when such stories surface. But remember, dogs have been domesticated by us for 10,000 years, and there is solid evidence the reasons are symbiotic, if not more.

I found another peer-reviewed article this week, “Understanding dog–human companionship,” written by Michael J. Dotson and Eva M. Hyatt, and published in 2008 in the United States Journal of Business Research ( volume 61, pages 457 – 466). (Sorry folks this is “behind the firewall,” but you can likely find it if you have access to university databases.) The article reports on a survey of  749 dog owners and the owners’ interactions with their dogs. The researchers found seven underlying dimensions defining our relations with dogs: symbiotic relationship, dog-oriented self concept, anthropomorphism, activity/youth, boundaries, specialty purchases, and willingness to adapt. I was less interested in the findings, and more interested in the background research uncovered.

How important are pets, and dogs in particular to people in this country? The article noted that approximately 70 million homes in 2002 reported having at least one pet as a member of the household. One author quoted, Brickel (1986), suggests that animals provide “one highly reliable association in a person’s life … more consistent and reliable than human–human.” Maybe that is why television viewers were so moved by that loyal black lab; we see something in dogs we fail to get from each other.

According to Dotson and Hyatt, it also turns out women serve as the primary caregivers for dogs in 73 percent of U.S. pet-owning households (US Pet Ownership and Demographic Sourcebook, 2002), and thus will score higher on all measured dimensions of dog companionship. Younger people also score stronger measurements of attachment to dogs, likely because of their ability to provide more time to the relationship. The paper further notes that researchers’ perceptions of the significant, distinctive role that pets play in people’s lives indicates we must recognize this relationship as one that “augments relationships with other humans.”

The researchers also point to findings that show that dogs create interactions among previously unacquainted people (old trick — get a puppy and make new friends) and help to establish trust among  newly acquainted people (you always will talk to a dog owner won’t you — a nice icebreaker for all people of all races, ages, and genders).

All of this makes me sad thinking of my short-lived relationship with AK, a lovely mutt who I could not keep in my apartment in 2010. He tore up the place, and I could not bear to leave him alone in a crate during the day, so I returned him to his owners hoping he would find a nice outdoor home. My status as a non-dog owner will change once I finish this program at the University of Washington School of Public Health.

AK resting (so calm)
AK and Rudy, September 2010

Another reason why we love dogs — they are wonderful athletes

As much as I love kennel club shows, I think I love dog frisbee-catching contests more. They bring out the best in the crowd, and usually the Aussie shepherds or border collies clean house, at least at shows I have attended. Here is a shot from the show that is held every year in the spring in the Parkstrip in downtown Anchorage, Alaska (shot from 2008). Love this dog’s intensity. What is not to like about a dog catching a frisbee? Beats anything I have seen on TV.

A howl is definitely more than we “clever” humans think

On my Facebook page earlier this winter, I shared two video clips that were remarkable to me and remarkably similar. One showed a malamute howling lovingly next to a crying infant, and it stopped both its fussing and crying. Another showed a Siberian husky doing the same thing to a crying baby. I just saw a “Discovery News” YouTube piece attempting to explain away the significance of the inter-species activity and give less value to the meaning of the howl.

I have experienced howling up close in Alaska, by both sled dog mutts in the hundreds and wolves that I came feet from touching. I know the howl very well. There is an intensity to the howl that I cannot fully explain. It’s a very soul-satisfying sound that speaks to something primal inside of me at least. Even though I was close to the wolf, I never felt threatened. The wolf was speaking to its pack (the wolf was actually trying to kill the two dogs I was with, not to harm me and my three running friends). Anyway, I think that dogs and humans have spent thousands of years together now, particularly in a very co-dependent evolutionary way in the Arctic, from Greenland to North America to Siberia to the Lapland/Sweden/Norway. There is a reason why the two species collaborated to survive this brutal climate together. It was mutually advantageous. One could not survive well without the other. That is very clear.

I believe there is something very deep taking place when these dogs howl in these two videos. It’s the howl of a dog taking care of the pack, and the most vulnerable member of the pack. I would also like to see evidence offering something that meaningfully rebuts that theory. And here’s one of my photos from Greenland of a sledge dog (what they call dogs there). I took it in 1998. I love Greenlandic dogs. Very wolflike critters, indeed.

Why we love pets, and why it is healthy for us

One of the benefits of paying tuition to a research university (in my case the University of Washington) is that you get access to otherwise off-limits articles. I am not allowed to share a full copy of this 1997 article by John Archer on why humans love pets, but I’ll include the abstract and some key findings:

-Compared to nonowners, pet owners are found to show significantly reduced physiological risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as plasma cholesterol and triglyceride levels, and systolic blood pressure (Anderson 1992; Anderson et al. 1992). These differences could not be attributable to confounding variables such as socioeconomic status, body weight, or smoking habits (Anderson 1992).

-Among patients who had been treated for myocardial infarction or angina pectoris, pet ownership was significantly associated with lower mortality 1 year later (Friedman et al. 1980); this association remained even when dog owners were removed, to control for their additional exercise. Pet owners also show less intense reactions to stress (Bergler 1992), fewer psychosomatic symptoms (Bergler 1992), and fewer visits to medical practitioners than nonowners (Siegel 1992), a finding that was attributed to the stress-buffering effect of pet ownership.

-Other studies show the direct effects of interacting with a pet (e.g., stroking it) on physiological measures indicative of relaxation, such as heart rate and blood pressure (Lysons 1992).

-A sample of children in an experimental situation where they were asked to read aloud showed comparable lowered blood pressure and heart rates when a friendly dog was present (Friedmann et al. 1983).

-A 10-month prospective study (Serpell 1991) examined changes in health and behavior following acquisition of a dog or cat and in a control group without pets. Pet owners showed a highly significant reduction in minor health problems and improved scores on a standardized questionnaire, the General Health Questionnaire (Goldberg and Williams 1978). These effects were more prolonged among dog than cat owners.

CITATION:
Why Do People Love Their Pets?
John Archer, Department of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, United Kingdom
Evolution and Human Behavior 18:237-259 (1997)

Abstract: The evidence that people form strong attachments with their pets is briefly reviewed before identifying the characteristics of such relationships, which include pets being a source of security as well as the objects of caregiving. In evolutionary terms, pet ownership poses a problem, since attachment and devoting resources to another species are, in theory, fitness-reducing. Three attempts to account for pet keeping are discussed, as are the problems with these views. Pet keeping is placed into the context of other forms of interspecific associations. From this, an alternative Darwinian explanation is proposed: pets are viewed as manipulating human responses that had evolved to facilitate human relationships, primarily (but not exclusively) those between parent and child. The precise mechanisms that enable pets to elicit caregiving from humans are elaborated. They involve features that provide the initial attraction, such as neotenous characteristics, and those that enable the human owner to derive continuing satisfaction from interacting with the pet, such as the attribution of mental processes to human-like organisms. These mechanisms can, in some circumstances, cause pet owners to derive more satisfaction from their pet relationship than those with humans, because they supply a type of unconditional relationship that is usually absent from those with other human beings.

For those with access to such databases, you may wish to find the full article, or there is a chance Google Scholar may have it somewhere in the “gray literature” area online.

And this is one of many pieces of peer reviewed research that highlights the many health benefits of pets and the incredibly strong emotion attachments humans have with them. (Go to the Delta Society web site for other research published online).