Annual ASU event shows benefits of human-dog interaction on health and well-being
Editor's note: July 3 marked the start of "the dog days of summer," the most sweltering days of the year. (For those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway.) To help you make it through, ASU Now is talking to experts from around the university about everything dog, from stars to language to man's best friend. Look for new stories every week through Aug. 9.
The first person to suggest that dogs could be more than just “man’s best friend” was psychologist Boris Levinson, who in the 1960s introduced the concept of animals for use in therapy.
His discovery came when he observed the calming effects that his dog Jingles had on a young patient who was struggling through a therapy session. When Jingles entered the room, the child relaxed, became more willing to participate and their communication improved.
Through that experience Levinson came to understand what any dog owner intuitively knows — that a dog’s presence has power.
And while his idea of animals serving a therapeutic purpose was initially met with resistance, today it isn’t surprising to see a professional pup accompanying a colleague at the office or sitting with a nervous passenger on a plane.
Even ASU faculty and staff have gotten on board with the idea.
Nika Gueci, executive director for university engagement at the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience, and Craig Thatcher, senior associate dean and professor in the Edson College of Nursing and Health Innovation, have introduced dogs to their workplace through an annual event during either fall or spring semesters called “Puppies in the Park.” And while the puppers involved aren’t officially therapy dogs, they still have plenty to offer participants.
ASU Now spoke with Gueci and Thatcher to learn more about Puppies in the Park and to discuss the myriad ways dogs enhance our lives.
Question: How is the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience working with dogs?
Thatcher: In 2017, the Center for Mindfulness, Compassion and Resilience launched an annual program called “Puppies in the Park,” in partnership with the Arizona Humane Society (AHS). The AHS brings adoptable puppies to the park in downtown Phoenix to interact with students, faculty and staff.
Gueci: This event is definitely a favorite of the students and ours.
As a team full of animal lovers, we share a great passion about the mutual benefits of the human-animal connection. We want to share the joyous connection and mindful state each of us have felt around our animal friends.
Students come up on their way to and from classes and see puppies they can hold and play with, and they light up. Many seem to arrive stressed but they all leave smiling and excited. Some teachers even bring their whole class down for a few minutes of shared happiness!
Q: Why are we so attached to our dogs?
Gueci: The human-dog connection is a mutually beneficial one. Our symbiotic relationship goes back hundreds of years, when dogs adapted to become domesticated and we adapted to living side by side with them.
Dogs tend to be very loyal and loving animals. Interactions with pets increase the release of neurochemicals that assist in relaxation and feelings of joy, empathy and compassion.
Thatcher: Dogs can sense emotions and differentiate between good and bad ones. Spending time with a dog can reduce stress and combat loneliness, and also decrease depression and anxiety. They increase our sense of self-esteem and well-being and provide unconditional love. They express empathy and can calm people down when they are feeling agitated.
Q: What happens to our bodies when we are around a friendly dog?
Thatcher: Spending time with dogs lowers blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, reduces stress hormones such as cortisol and improves mood and happiness by changing brain chemistry.
Living with a dog can improve cardiovascular health and increase physical activity, which can lower cholesterol and impact obesity. Walking a dog can motivate you to go to parks, beaches, woods and other green spaces. Experiencing nature can provide positive impacts to health.
Q: What are the mental and emotional benefits of spending time with dogs?
Gueci: Some mental health conditions and their symptoms can be alleviated with support from an animal companion. Studies have shown that dogs decrease levels of depression, loneliness, stress and anxiety. More so, people viewing themselves as isolated or (who) feel they have been frequently stigmatized desire and appreciate the nonjudgmental connection and acceptance they receive from their pets.
These benefits are perceived to be because dogs are capable, even more so than any of our closer relatives in the animal kingdom, of interpreting human behavior and emotion, and are able to communicate with us in a variety of ways.
Thatcher: A psychological benefit of interacting with a dog is the opportunity it provides to be more mindful and to focus on the present moment, since dogs have a natural capacity to open up to each moment as it unfolds.
Videos courtesy of Jamie Ell
MORE DOG DAYS OF SUMMER STORIES