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It's a Dog's Life

by on October 06, 2014 7:10 AM

I have the potential to be a weird dog person.

There are two dogs that live in my house, numbers three and four in the line of pets that have been part of our family. That doesn't include my mother's dog who we helped save from an Amish puppy mill or the newest addition to our extended family, my daughter's long haired mini dachshund who has stolen all of our hearts in the past year.

There is something about a pet that makes our lives a little better.

I have been thinking about the human reaction to pets since I read a posting on Facebook last week about the search for a tan colored jeep in which either the driver or a passenger was observed tossing 5 kittens out of the moving car. Three of the kittens survived and are being rehabilitated and prepared for adoption.

What kind of monster could be so evil? A person who doesn't spay his or her cat and then is angry about having to care for the babies that result – who then throws those babies out of the window of a moving car – fits that definition in my book. I get worked up just thinking about the pain and the fear that those little ones suffered.

Some people call it anthropomorphism – the attachment of human emotions to non-human objects. We call hurricanes by human names and then talk about their path of destruction almost as if the hurricane made calculated decisions. We attribute human emotions to our cars or the dishwasher or that copier at the office. "It just decided to stop working." We assign personalities and human emotions to our pets.

Research that has examined "intellect" in dogs has suggested that dogs are actually not only smart but perhaps more responsive to their environment. We have only recently begun to understand how they use smell, hearing and the reactions of their humans to take in information. It is generally believed that dogs have cognitive skills that are equal to a human toddler. Memory. Reasoning.

Consider what we call "tennis ball brain." Our yellow lab couldn't care less. She understands that she's supposed to go get it and bring it back but finds other activities (like eating our landscaping) preferable to the tennis ball. Our black lab, on the other hand, is obsessed. There have been times that I've stepped out of the shower to find her in the bathroom, in full hunting stance, stalking the tennis ball that she has placed outside the shower door. I have also seen the black lab go and find a toy and drop it at the feet of our yellow in an attempt to get her to drop the tennis ball. Strategizing and problem solving.

Anthropomorphism indeed.

It also turns out that dogs have the capacity to not only learn and remember but also the ability to associate emotions that we humans call "love."

I know when one of my kids is almost home. Our dogs start to jump and wag and bark before the car has even rounded the corner and entered our line of sight. Numerous studies have found that dogs, like humans, release oxytocin (AKA the love hormone) when provided with stimulus about their owners. That wagging tail and that like on your hand is more than just a reminder to feed them.

There is considerable research on the benefits of having a pet. Scientists have looked at our physiological reactions to having an animal in our lives and have found pets to be beneficial.From reducing blood pressure to relieving symptoms of depression, having a dog or a cat in our homes does as much for us as it does for the pet.

Prisoners who have access to animal care demonstrate reduced aggressive behaviors. Kittens and puppies – as well as adult cats and dogs – have been used with people in traumatic or stressed situations as therapy. After the Newton Connecticut shootings, Golden Retriever therapy dogs were used to help the children adjust to their return to school.

In nursing homes and for college students during finals week, dogs and puppies can help manage stress or loneliness. Dogs and miniature horses are used to assist people with disabilities in completing the tasks of daily living. There are "seizure dogs" and "diabetes dogs" who can sense the biological changes in his or her master. There are canine patrols in law enforcement and in the military that assist their humans with keeping us safe.

If you write it down on paper, having a pet is a strange thing. Our ancestors built shelters to protect themselves from the elements and from animals in the wild. We have domesticated some of those animals (or perhaps they have domesticated us). We feed them. We name them. We talk to them. We train them to do tricks. They become an important part of our lives.

As it turns out, "puppy love" is part of being human and assigning emotions to our pets may not be so weird after all.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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