Every day when I wake up to my sweet pups' faces I wonder: How do people not have dogs? How do they handle stresses of everyday life without a pair of puppy dog eyes to gaze into as their heart melts?
And that's not just me being mushy about my guys (even though they are pretty special!). While “dogs have been a part of peoples' lives for thousands of years,” says Rebecca A. Johnson, Ph.D, director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at University of Missouri, they've evolved from working and living outside to living indoors as part of the family.
We didn't let other working animals move into the house and sleep on our beds — why dogs?
When we see, touch, hear or talk to our companion animals, beneficial neurohormones are released and that induces a sense of goodwill, joy, nurturing and happiness.
“Over time the relationship has gotten closer and closer,” Johnson says. “Some would relate that to advancements in industrialization and technology. We live in a high-tech, low-touch world and people have a longing for a bond with nature.” Companion animals like dogs can be that bond.
And these bonds “help us to feel good,” she says. “When we see, touch, hear or talk to our companion animals,” beneficial neurohormones “are released and that induces a sense of goodwill, joy, nurturing and happiness.” At the same time, the stress hormone cortisol is suppressed. Heart rate, blood pressure and respiratory rate can all decrease, leaving us more relaxed “and able to manage stress in ways that aren't harmful to our health,” she explains.
“The bond between man and dog is something that can really cure a lot of emptiness,” says Stephen Knight of Dallas, Texas. “I'm a recovering addict, six years clean and sober,” Knight tells NBC News BETTER. “I did work in non-profits and social services but went into addiction hard core and ended up homeless, living out of my car, and lost everything in life that matters.”
Getting a dog eight months into recovery “changed my life,” Knight says. “There's a lot of voids that you fill with drinking and drugs. Dogs can replace that with their love.”
Having a dog “taught me how to trust again and how to build a relationship,” he adds.
Knight's first dog was a 10-pounder named Jayde he took in when a friend went to a rehabilitation center and couldn't take her dog. It was either a shelter where the Maltese-Daschund mix would likely be euthanized, or live with him, Knight says. After experiencing what it meant to have a dog, “I had this vision,” he says, “an aha moment: If this is so good for me, this, how many other people could it help?”
Indeed, dogs can play an important role in recovery, Johnson says. “We need to have unconditional love and acceptance that we get from animals. Nobody gets enough of that.”
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The bond between man and dog is something that can really cure a lot of emptiness.
Knight returned to school to get a license to practice substance abuse counseling, he says. And he launched an organization that would make sure that concern for a dog wouldn't be a barrier to seeking help. Most sobriety houses don't allow dogs, and “I couldn't imagine, saying 'you're making this huge decision to work on your life but in order to do that you have to give up that one lasting relationship you have, your dog,'” he says. “I was amazed how many people would not give up their dogs and they end up getting worse.”
Dogs Matter steps in to place dogs who need a temporary home with foster families, and provides resources to care for the pet. Knowing their dog is ok allows people to focus on their recovery, Knight says. They're reunited when they're able to provide the care the dog needs, but it's the care the dog gives their person that makes the lasting impact.
Three years into the program, “we've seen a difference,” Knight says. “We're finding about 70 percent of clients are clean and sober now ... most made it through the [most difficult] first year because they had their dog back. I think we have something very special.”
What's more, the dogs are doing good even as they're in foster care — they most often go to homes of others in recovery. “When we get to a point that [the clients] are pretty solid and thinking about getting a dog, they foster for people going into rehab,” Knight says. “We encourage them to experience what it is to have a dog.”
Dogs stay present in the moment. That's important for people in recovery, we try to not worry about the future as much. And dogs don't let their past define them.
And what is that experience? “That first year can be very lonely,” Knight says. “Most people are not going to be in relationships and they shouldn't be. A dog can provide so many positive elements to what the human experience is about: purpose, responsibility, trust, unconditional love.” In his own first year, Knight says, “I was depressed and having to face the reality of my consequences. You don't want to get out of bed but if you have a dog sitting on top of you … it gives you that motivation and that responsibility.”
Dogs can teach an important lesson, too, he says. “Dogs stay present in the moment. That's important for people in recovery, we try to not worry about the future as much. And dogs don't let their past define them.”
Knight is working to launch Dogs Matter programs across the country. But there's a whole world of other opportunity for dogs to make a difference.
Another population that sees great benefit from dog companionship is older adults, says Johnson. Yet this is another group that often isn't able to keep their pets at a time they need them most.
If an older person is struggling to take care of a pet, “the unfortunate thing that happens is family members say the pet has to go. Sometimes even primary caregivers say that,” Johnson says. “It's inhumane to the animal and the adult. Often the animal is the reason adult gets up in the morning. It may be the only individual they communicate with for days.”
Many senior living facilities don't allow pets, and “if you think of the stress of having to move to a new place, and on top of it to have to give [their pet] up, it's unthinkable,” Johnson says. “So we started Tiger Place, where people move in with their pets and my team provides pet care assistance.” Residents get help with dog walking, grooming, and medication for their companion. “We need more places like this that promote this kind of interaction,” she says.
Dogs also provide a communication bridge between older and younger generations, Johnson says.
“Children can grow up without much contact with older relatives,” she says. “and they think there's nothing to talk about with their grandparents. Having a companion animal to talk about, to text about, share pictures of ... it enables children to talk to their grandparents.”
In fact, dogs in many social situations make for easier conversation, Johnson says, calling it a social lubricant effect. “People are likely to respond more positively to someone who has an animal with them. Animals give us permission to engage in ways we wouldn't otherwise, less formal ways, silly ways. But at a minimum animals provide a topic of conversation that's not stressful.” And that's helpful in settings ranging from workplaces — which are more and more allowing dogs — to hospitals and other settings where trained therapy dogs work.
Dogs are even starting to pop up in court, of all places. “There's a growing movement to have courthouse dogs,” Knight says, “a specially trained therapy animal to preside and be with children and people who have suffered domestic violence who have to testify. Children undergoing forensic interviews for child abuse, who may be in foster care can benefit from interacting with a service while going through interviews.”
For anyone interested in doing therapy work with their dog, it's important that people don't think they “have a nice dog” and can just jump right in, Knight says. “A reputable program like PetPartners.org is the gold standard for helping people and their dogs train and register to be visitation or therapy animals.”
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Dana McMahan is a contributing writer to NBC News.