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Rebecca McGoldrick '12: The student-dog relationship

Several lab tests and a week later, my diagnosis was in: Stress was the cause of my restless nights, my lack of appetite and my racing heartbeat. But my medicine is not a barbiturate or an exercise; it is 87 pounds, has a wet nose, and a heavy dose leaves me covered in golden fur. My medicine is a 5-year-old Labrador retriever named Hurley, and just the anticipation of leaving him home in New Jersey to finish my last semester at Brown makes us both whimper.

But I am not alone. The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 39 percent of American households currently own at least one dog. While exact numbers of college students with pets at home is difficult to determine, a casual conversation with my peers leads me to believe that many of us lack our greatest companion for years while earning a college degree. And science is showing that this interspecies relationship has more health implications than we might imagine.

While pet owners in general benefit from having animal companions, a small but ever-growing body of research posits that dogs in particular are physically and psychologically advantageous for our well-being. Unlike other pets that may require tanks and cages, dogs need physical activity like walks. A study funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH) found that "dog owners who regularly walked their dogs were more physically active and less likely to be obese than those who didn't own or walk a dog." Another NIH study found that people who owned pets had lower heart rates and blood pressure than those who did not have pets. But it gets better.

Companion animals like dogs are gaining more attention from psychologists and other professional therapists. The Delta Society, a non-profit organization, trains and provides therapy animals to help people suffering from physical and mental disabilities. At the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, Professor Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg has been studying oxytocin, a hormone that creates the feeling of comfort and attachment and induces antidepressant effects. In one study, Uvnas-Moberg tested dogs and their owners for levels of oxytocin over the course of a petting session and found that both subjects experienced bursts of oxytocin, which correlated with petting time.

In addition to increased levels of oxytocin, research at Kean University in New Jersey has shown that our cortisol levels decrease just from looking at dogs. High levels of cortisol are related to physical and emotional stress, and too much cortisol can have negative effects on the circulatory, nervous and immune systems. Stress contributes to a host of problems that affect us immediately and, over time, in the future. Some symptoms of stress include headaches, insomnia, frequent infections, stomach pain, nausea, mood swings, confusion, difficulty concentrating and increased smoking, alcohol and drug use. In the long run, stress has been linked to heart attacks, stroke, hypertension, autoimmune diseases, as well as degenerative neurological disorders, such as Parkinson's disease.

While Brown touted with pride its rank as the happiest college in America in 2010, we dropped to number three this past year. The drop - though not significant - should be considered, and suggestions for improvement, welcomed. Thus, in light of research showing the vast benefits of human-dog relationships, I was surprised to learn that Office of Residential Life's call for a new program house last fall received only one submission, and it was not Dog House.

As college students we face countless stresses, only some of which include striving for academic excellence and preparing for life after graduation. A link on Brown's Psychological Services webpage to ULifeline - a website that provides statistics, facts and guidance to students and campus health professionals about stress and depression - claims that "nearly half of all college students say they have felt so depressed that they found it difficult to function during the last school year." Given the evidence that shows the physical and psychological benefits of human-dog relationships, and provided the statistics of stress and depression on college campuses, it seems obvious to suggest that Brown should adopt a program house that centers on this relationship.

Surely, there are details that need to be worked out, but four colleges have already enacted programs that allow dogs to live in certain residences. Whether it would mean bringing your childhood pet from home or participating in a pet foster program through a local animal shelter, the benefits are too significant to be ignored.

 

Rebecca McGoldrick '12 is willing to help underclassmen write a Dog House/Animal House submission for ResLife.


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