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.

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).