Following the death of her dog Leia, Aoife Hardesty explores the science that proves dogs really are the best.
Most dog owners can tell you about the wonderful feeling of coming home to your dog. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been gone for a few hours, days, or weeks; the general reception you receive from your canine companion is a flurry of love. The excitement, possibly barking, maybe some jumping, body wiggling, insane tail wagging, the pressure your dog may put on you as they lean against you, as though in an attempt to get as close to you as caninely possible.
The incredible love, never-ending loyalty, and constant ability to make people laugh, dogs are (in this author’s opinion) the best things on the planet. Not only have I got my own opinions built on years of experiencing the wonders and joys and heartbreaks of owning dogs, I have Science on my side.
MRI scans have shown that dogs really do love us humans right back. Have you ever seen a dog around food? Maybe they’re wolfing down their dinner, or watching you eat yours, with those eyes looking at you, seeing right into your soul, begging for ‘just a morsel?’ MRI scans of dogs’ brains showed they received as much pleasure from human affection as from food. The dogs were given food while having an MRI scan and their brains lit up in all the right pleasure places. When receiving praise, the brains lit up just as much, and in some cases, more than when given food. Another similar MRI test measured dogs’ responses when presented with different smells (as smell is the strongest of all a dog’s senses), and when the dogs smelt their human’s smell, the pleasure areas of the brain lit right up.
“Science has also shown dogs to be smarter than cats.”
Studies on dog brains have also been performed to measure their intelligence. There is an age-old argument over cats or dogs. Science has also shown dogs to be smarter than cats. The evidence for this statement comes from a study in Vanderbilt University, Tennessee that found that while cats have 250 million neurons in their cortex, dogs have 530 million. Humans have 16 billion. Neuron complexity in the cortex is linked to intelligence and the greater the number of neurons in the cortex, the more complex it becomes, and thus the more intelligent the animal.
The intelligence of dogs is largely undisputed; dogs have been trained for roughly 100 years to act as guide dogs, and more recently as service and assistance dogs. Training guide dogs began in Germany during WWI for soldiers who were blinded in the war. In the century since, dogs have been trained for medical assistance: to accompany diabetics and alert them if their blood sugar levels are becoming too high or too low, to care for individuals with epilepsy in cases of seizures, and there are now several studies of dogs who detected their owners’ cancer. Scientists are currently looking into how this incredible canine sense of smell could be exploited as a diagnostic method for cancer.
“Training guide dogs began in Germany during WWI for soldiers who were blinded in the war.”
Most dog owners will have at some point had the experience of being really upset, when it seems like the world may have been about to end, and you go sit with your dog, and everything becomes okay again. This moment is part of what makes dogs such good companions and assistance dogs for individuals with autism, anxiety, and PTSD. Research has shown that having a dog in the room with children having blood taken lowers the child’s worry levels, the researchers measured cortisol levels, a hormone that is released during stress, facial expressions for pain, and also usual observable signs of distress. They took data from children with a dog in the room for the procedure, and from a control group of children who did not have a dog in the room with them, the data conclusively showed that the mere presence of a dog resulted in lowered stress levels.
Decreased stress is one of the mental health benefits of having a dog that are listed on many different websites. One of the biggest psychological needs in humans is the need to be loved and wanted, and dogs can give that for people, and that has been shown to boost overall feelings of goodness. For anyone who has a dog, you don’t need the scientific proof to tell you that.
As scientists and researchers delve more into studies about dogs’ abilities, they’re only proving what dog-people have been saying all along: dogs are really pretty incredible.
Dogs have remarkable intelligence which enables them to learn a whole host of commands, like jump through hoops, to round up those sheep, to check if this dish might have cancer in it, to being able to calm people down by literally just being with them. The unconditional love from a dog can make a life whole, and seem worth living, and the loss of a beloved canine companion can be earth-shattering and heart-breaking. Such is the price we humans must pay for loving these intelligent, kind, and ridiculously funny animals, and ultimately, for all the goodness we get in return, it is a price well worth paying.