Dogs are renowned for their loyalty and abilities to guard, hunt and chase. Early wolf-dogs would have harassed animals like bison and mammoths and would have hounded them until they tired, and then humans would have jumped in with the spears or bows and arrows to finish them off! We probably tamed some of them and bred them to chase prey away or to drive off rival carnivores that tried to steal the meat.

Today keeping a pet is a totally different thing. We have effectively humanised our pets, we talk to them, they keep us company, we feed them special food, we view them as an old friend, we lavish inordinate amounts of love on them, some even dress them up in human clothing (one of my personal hates I have to say), and we mourn them when they ‘go over the rainbow’. Having a pet can enhance our mood, improve our blood pressure, reduce stress and can be a great cure for loneliness and depression by giving us companionship, and some studies show that having a pet with you during an anxious event could help reduce the stress of that event. Most people’s good mood increases and bad mood decreases around pets, so we know that there are immediate short term benefits, both physiological and psychological, from interacting with pets.

But some research shows no difference between the health of those who do and don’t own pets. Still more research suggests there could even be negatives about pet ownership (and I don’t just mean picking up poo from the garden!). Shockingly, they have found that some pet owners are more likely to be lonely, depressed and have panic attacks, obesity, high blood pressure, gastric ulcers, migraine headaches, and use more medicine, etc., which is hard to believe, though I know pet dander can be an issue for those with asthma.

A 2015 study found children with attention deficit disorders who read to real animals showed more improvements in sharing, cooperation, volunteering and behavioural problems than similar children who read to a stuffed animal. Another study found autistic children were calmer and interacted more when in the presence of guinea pigs than toys.

Yet some people couldn’t care less about pets! I find this hard to get my head round! But the reasons can be understood – they don’t like the smell (well, yes, wet dog isn’t very pleasant), they leave hair everywhere (got a point there), pets misbehave (only if you don’t train them right), and the belief that animals are dirty and should be kept outside (if you have designer furniture I guess this is a good point too). Some even believe that yes, you can have a family dog, but it should live outside, and some religious faiths believe that dogs are unclean and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere, and are conventionally thought of as ritually impure. This idea taps into a long tradition that considers even the mere sight of a dog during prayer to have the power to nullify the devotions.

Perhaps some people aren’t warm and fuzzy about animals because of a bad experience in the past, apprehension remaining from a suppressed memory maybe. Sometimes a fear of animals is inherited from their parents. For example, if someone was bitten by a dog as a child, they would be hyper-vigilant at protecting their own children from them. The child then naturally assumes that dogs all dogs are bad and that you should stay away from them. The fear of dogs (or cats for that matter) can run pretty deep.

Dogs have a lot more things going for them than is generally realised – some are trainable to aid the blind or the disabled, to sniff out drugs or explosives, can be trained for search and rescue, herding livestock, some are trained to be good attack dogs for the police, and some are even capable of detecting cancers in us humans. Even cats are useful for keeping rats and mice away from grain stores – show me a farm without a resident cat!

George Eliot once quoted: “Animals are such agreeable friends, they ask no questions; they pass no criticisms.”

Certainly true. Anyway, that’s enough from me today – I have to take my dogs out!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan