Canine Karma


Iain Why talks from personal experience as to why a canine companion can work wonders for your wellbeing

We live in troubled times, no doubt about it. I cannot remember a time in my life when the news has been so relentlessly grim, so tripping over with eagerness to offer ever more depraved examples of the horrors human beings can inflict on each other. It's at such times that the companionship of animals can offer welcome respite both from the troubles of human beings in general and of this human being in particular.

I love all animals, really all of them. I've no problem at all with snakes and spiders; I once had a pet rat named Rosenberg. I love cats and camels and cuscuses, too, (or I'm sure I would if I ever met one) but for me the companion par excellence will always be the dog. This is hardly surprising; dogs and humans are thought to have lived together for at least 15,000 years. The social structure of wolf and dog packs, with its emphasis on collaboration and co-operation, more closely resembles that of human beings than any other animal. This is why dogs can be trained to herd sheep, for example, or to sniff out explosives, or to serve as someone's eyes or ears, or to find an injured climber on a mountain. It is not a question of dominance, as some people would have you believe. Good training is never about dominance but rather about establishing trust and understanding, the ability of human and dog to communicate with each other and to work towards mutually satisfying goals.

Quite apart from the exercise dogs provide, the daily structure and routine, the facilitating of social contact (I met many of my closest human friends through walking with my dogs), it is the quality of the relationship that is possible with a dog that accounts first and foremost, I believe, for the positive impact dogs have repeatedly been shown to have on mental health. A recent academic study found that per owners had higher levels of self-esteem than non pet-owners, tended to be less lonely and less fearful, and were more extrovert and less preoccupied. Moreover, there was no evidence that people's relationships with their pets came at the expense of those they had with other people: pet owners were found to be just as close to key human figures in their lives as non owners.

Dogs have their detractors, of course. Prominent among them is Times columnist Giles Coren who believes that dogs should be banned from cities altogether because of the failure of some owners to clean up after them. "If people are that lonely they have to have a scraggy mutt for their only mate, I will be their friend," he wrote. But such comments fail to understand the nature of the human/dog relationship at its best (I'd be the first to acknowledge there are owners who let their dogs down woefully). A dog is not a poor-quality human companion substitute. A dog is a top-quality dog companion. And that's a different thing.

A new book, My Dog, My Friend is published tomorrow to celebrate the human/dog relationship and the positive impact of dogs on mental wellbeing. Contributors, including politicians, TV personalities and writers (myself included), have written accounts of their relationships with dogs and often on how they have helped them through difficult times. As the author Julie Myerson puts it "Most of all, when your confidence is at its lowest, when you feel battered – by life, death and (especially) other humans – a dog will shove her nose in your hand and tell you, with conviction and feeling, what a really good person you are." It's a delightful collection and, with all author royalties donated to the Samaritans, I would think a difficult one to resist.

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