Many animal and dog owners are aware of the scientific and medical studies that indicate that spending quality time with dogs lowers our stress, blood pressure and heart rate. However, these physical and psychological benefits are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. As reported recently in Men’s Journal Magazine, the ways dogs are improving the lives of people are greatly increasing.

Even though dogs were the first domesticated animals, dating back at least 15,000 years, the appreciation of dogs relative to human-animal interaction is fairly new. Dogs evolved from wolves that had developed a special non-fearful and non-aggressive temperament that enabled them to get close to people and their resources. It is this evolution that allowed dogs to become essential workers, hunting game and protecting the agriculture and livestock that allowed the human race to flourish. Over time dogs changed genetically to not only become more like humans psychologically, but to pay attention to and care about us. It was not until the late 1970’s however, that the relationship between humans and dogs began to emerge as a multi-disciplinary science. Until that time, evidence of canine-related health benefits derived from dogs was considered merely anecdotal. From 1980 – 1987 doctors, scientists and researchers like Dr. Erika Friedmann at the University of Maryland School of Nursing and institutions like the National Institutes of Health, published landmark studies recognizing the importance pet ownership had on public health outcomes including improved survival rates of heart attack patients, lower blood pressure and cardiovascular benefits.

Since that time, the advantages provided by dogs have become even more evident. Canines that have been used as service dogs to aid the blind for decades are now being trained to assist people with using their hands and arms as well as with mobility and balance issues by opening/closing doors and cabinets, and by serving as balance supports. Even more impressive is the ability of dogs to learn to detect the slightest human behavioral changes enabling them to warn their owners of a pending seizure or fainting spell caused by diabetes, epilepsy or a cardiac-related issue. Therapy dogs are also used to calm migraine sufferers and to assist patients with autism and dementia stay focused. These canine companions are able to relieve stress and create a positive environment for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s patients performing memory and physical rehabilitation exercises. It is not surprising that some of the most dramatic canine health results are revealed in marginalized social segments like senior citizens, the incarcerated, juvenile delinquents and war veterans.

Today dogs are achieving even more dramatic heights in their ability to enhance the lives of their human counterparts. At In Situ, a canine medical-training center in Chico, California, more than 50 dogs have been trained to detect early-stage melanoma and upper thoracic, lung, breast, ovarian, bladder and prostate cancers with an accuracy rate of approximately 98%. In fact, in double-blind trials the dogs have been considerably more accurate than all existing mechanical and medical tests, which can generate false positives. This is possible because of the amazing sense of smell dog’s posses. The average human has 5 million olfactory cells or receptors in their nose. According to sources including Pet Sitters International, dogs have between 150 and 250 million olfactory cells depending on the breed. Men’s Journal Magazine reported the number of olfactory cells at 300 million. Regardless, dogs have the ability to smell things in parts per trillion. That is the equivalent of sniffing out 1cc of blood diluted in two Olympic-size swimming pools of water.

Gerontologist and PetSmart Director of Content Dr. David J. Demko says “The physical and mental health benefits of owning a dog can add two years to the life of an owner.” Increased longevity and enhanced quality of life through the mutual benefits derived from companionship with our canine friends sounds like a prescription we could all use.