I was lucky enough to share my growing-up years with a big red chow chow. After deferring my request to get a dog for some time, my parents finally gave me the go-ahead when I was twelve; by this time I was old enough to take responsibility for a dog, and my paper-route and babysitting money would be enough to cover dog food and vet check-ups. My dad built a sturdy doghouse, we visited a shelter or two, I scoured the pet section of the classified ads, and eventually Cody joined our family.
It had pretty much been love at first sight, and Cody was my faithful companion for the next thirteen years. He knew the sound of the school bus stopping a street away, and was always eagerly waiting for me when I got home. Our nightly walks were a calming and peaceful part of my day. Cody and I even won a pet/owner look-alike contest once (after an unfortunate hair experiment . . . the kit was supposed to turn my hair more blonde . . .)
Cody’s been gone for many years now, but I’ve been thinking about him lately, and about the unique place that dogs and other pets can have in our lives. As humans, we’ve been created with a deep need for things like companionship, connection, and physical touch. And although pets can’t (and shouldn’t) replace human relationships, there’s something beautiful and simple about the love they give us: it’s unconditional and uncomplicated by the things that can add stress to human interactions. Dogs don’t judge or hold a grudge or carry anxiety-inducing expectations.
I asked a few friends and family members about what their dogs meant to them, and quickly discovered that people love to talk about their furry companions, share photos and stories, and reminisce about past loved pets; “I could talk about our dogs all day!” commented one of my friends. And I loved hearing their stories.
One of my sisters-in-law, for example, told me about an abandoned dog named Cocoa that stole her heart. My sister-in-law spent some time living up north in Fort Smith, NWT; a lifelong dog lover, she regularly volunteered at the local dog shelter there. One evening she noticed a new arrival, a beautiful black mixed breed with brown markings, but was saddened to see the sign outside his pen: “Be careful, aggressive dog; don’t allow out with other dogs.” This angry, wary dog was slated to be euthanized the next time the vet came around, as he was too difficult for the volunteers to handle, and unlikely to find a new home.
When she gently approached the dog, she found him scared and timid, but not vicious. Over time they formed a bond. The other volunteers noticed a change in Cocoa, and the plans to euthanize him were put on hold. Unfortunately, my sister-in-law’s rental didn’t allow pets, but she ended up moving just so she could adopt him.
“He brought me companionship and friendship while living in such a remote Northern little town,” she remembers. “He brought me joy knowing he was happy and loved and able to live out the rest of his short life . . . knowing what being loved felt like.”
It’s that combination of giving and receiving love that seems to be at the heart of the bond we have with our pets; they give us boundless affection, but they need us too. Both aspects are good for us.
One of my brothers says that having his dog Luisa (a rescue dog that he and his wife adopted a few years ago) is like living with a toddler in many ways: “Her needs come first.” He feels that dog ownership can lead to a certain sense of purpose and a more selfless attitude to life. When I see devoted dog owners trudging through the rain with their dogs, or going through the undignified process of cleaning up after them, I’m inclined to agree. Do our pet interactions cultivate character traits in us that, ultimately, help us in other relationships and areas of life? I would suspect so.
Studies on the emotional, psychological, and even physical benefits of owning a dog or other pet have noted decreased stress and depression, and even lower blood pressure and better cardiovascular health. A truly objective study is almost impossible to design – what is cause, and what is simply correlation? – but the immediate benefits of positive pet interactions have been more definitely demonstrated. Simply petting a dog can reduce the stress hormone cortisol, and time spent with a loved pet raises levels of oxytocin, a feel-good hormone associated with bonding. And when stress goes down, other health markers tend to improve – with the reverse also true.
Cypress and Winston
Another sister-in-law initially had mixed feelings about bringing a dog into their home, after several years without one. Her teenage kids are growing up and building lives of their own, and she felt like they were past the little-kids-and-a-puppy-in-the-backyard stage of family life. But Cypress, a gentle “Goldendoodle,” has been a blessing to all of them. When her seventeen-year-old son has something on his mind, he’ll find Cypress for some “dog love,” and my sister-in-law says she can just see her son’s tension drain away. She says when she’s feeling stressed, Cypress will seek her out. Getting outside for regular walks with Cypress has also been beneficial. And coming home to a house that was getting to be a little too empty, but isn’t anymore, lifts her spirits.
Others I’ve talked to agree that dogs seem to have a “sixth sense” about their owners’ moods, and are quick to comfort and give affection. My brother says that Luisa can seem to tell when he’s had a more difficult day at work; when he walks in the door, he gets an extra dose of exuberant affection. One of my friends, reflecting on her “Westie,” Winston, puts it this way: “He is completely devoted to me, always attuned to my mood. He celebrates with me when I laugh and comforts me when I’m sad.”
Not surprisingly, the benefits of dogs or other pets is most noticeable among those who may be lonelier or struggling in some way. Pets provide companionship and that vital physical touch we all need; pets can also give a sense of purpose and structure, remind us that we’re needed, and take our minds off ourselves. A dog can be the catalyst that prompts a lonely senior to get up, get outside, and engage with life – all of which are good things that often lead to more good things.
Pets in their place
Of course, pets replacing human relationships is problematic; the “pets instead of kids” phenomenon is disturbing, as is the astronomical amount of money that North Americans spend on their pets (Americans spend upwards of $100 billion every year). But in their place, pets are a unique blessing. God as our loving Father knows what we need, and delights in giving us the good gifts of His creation. And surely the human-pet bond is one of those gifts.
As for me, I haven’t had a dog since Cody died. Family life is already busy and full. Do we really want to take on the time commitment and expense of a dog? Do I really want to vacuum that much? On the other hand, how can we argue with all those endorphins?
For now, we’ve gotten some guppies, and our nine-year-old daughter is campaigning for gerbils. A slippery slope? Time will tell whether there will be any four-legged friends in our future . . . but either way, I’ll always be grateful that there was one inimitable chow chow in my past.