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On January 29, 1908 an article appeared in The New York Times reporting the decision of a military tribunal concerning one Colonel Deems and his dog Riley. According to the article “The Retiring Board in solemn conclave has decided that the Colonel’s fondness for the little fox terrier that had the run of Fort Howard, Baltimore, was not an evidence of mental derangement.”
The testimony against the officer was supposed to be quite damning, such as “it must not be forgotten that Riley jumped right up in the Colonel’s ample lap and kissed him squarely in the mouth. Did it scores of times. Once he so far forgot himself as to carry off one of the Colonel’s boots surreptitiously and the post commander had to hobble around his quarters for an hour with one foot bootless while his orderly searched for the No. 10.” Furthermore the Colonel did nothing when his dog acted “in utter disregard of the seriousness of army life,” by treating officers and enlisted men in exactly the same way. Nonetheless, the army officers and surgeons involved sent Col. Deems back to active duty concluding that “the dog was merely the target for the affection of a lonely army bachelor.”
Our view of the human-animal bond has clearly changed quite a bit since that hearing in the beginning of the twentieth century. No one can imagine someone’s mental state being called into question in our modern world simply because they showed affection to a dog, or accepted affection from the dog in return. Today, in fact, our view of the human-animal bond has changed to such a degree that we are actually looking at dogs as a means of promoting both the mental and physical health of their owners.
The strength of the human animal bond has been known for a long time, but scientific evidence about how it works was first published only about 30 years ago when a psychologist, Alan Beck of Purdue University, and a psychiatrist, Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania, actually measured what happens physically when a person pets a friendly and familiar dog. They found that the person’s blood pressure lowered, heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed-all of which are signs of reduced stress. Furthermore a study published recently in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine not only confirmed these effects, but showed changes in blood chemistry demonstrating reduced amounts of stress related hormones. It is interesting to note that these positive psychological effects work a lot faster than many drugs taken for stress, since all of these effects occurred after only 5 to 24 minutes of pleasantly interacting with the dog.