Dogs have been man’s (and woman’s) best friend for thousands of years. In fact, scholars in the 12th century believed that a dog could help heal a person’s wound by licking it. While it’s not a good idea to let dogs lick open wounds, anyone who’s been around dogs knows that they do a lot more than just look cute. National Dog Day, also called International Dog Day and Dog Appreciation Day, was founded to give people a chance to appreciate all that dogs do for us.

Some dogs, called assistive or service dogs, perform essential jobs for their owners.

Although most people have seen an assistive dog before, few realize the immense number of jobs that one of these dogs can perform. Mobility dogs help with jobs like opening doors, fetching items, or turning on lights. Some assistive dogs, like sight dogs or hearing dogs, help their owners navigate their environment safely.

Service dogs can even help people with mental diseases or psychiatric conditions. Autism dogs help autistic children with socialization, emotional development, and safety. Someone with PTSD who is afraid of intruders because of past experiences can have his or her dog search a house for intruders before entering.  A dog can also learn to provide alternatives to a person’s OCD behavior, such as bringing a dog brush to distract its owner from picking at his or her skin.

Many service dog training programs raise puppies from birth for a specific job, but others manage to make a difference to homeless dogs. For example, Freedom Service Dogs of America rescues all of its animals from shelters. Once trained, many of their dogs go to veterans or active-duty soldiers or to a therapy program designed to help at-risk youth. If a dog fails to become a service or therapy dog, it’s adopted out as a highly-trained pet.

Although therapy dogs don’t perform the same jobs as assistive dogs, recent research has shown that therapy dogs can be extremely beneficial.

A therapy dog isn’t typically as extensively trained as a service dog, but therapy dogs are still required to have good manners and social skills. Therapy dogs visit people who are either unable to own a pet or who are residing in a health facility that forces them to be separated from their pet. Common places for a therapy dog to visit include hospitals, nursing homes, or mental health facilities.

A visit from a therapy dog can certainly brighten anyone’s day, but it may have significant health benefits, too. An article on this topic was published in Complementary Health Practice Review and summarizes the many different ways that animals have been shown to help people.

These include:

  • Increased immune system activity
  • Lowered blood pressure
  • Improved perceived quality of life
  • Lowered heart rate
  • Improved self-care
  • Lowered anxiety
  • Lowered depression
  • Improved cognitive function
  • Improved self-care
  • Improved physical function

These benefits have been observed in everyone from cognitively-challenged elderly people in nursing homes to stock brokers.

In addition to visiting health facilities, many therapy dogs visit schools or bookstores. Children, especially those who have difficulty reading, can practice reading to a dog. This allows children to improve their reading skills in a fun way, which can improve self-esteem and grades. Additionally, Disaster Stress Relief Dogs are therapy dogs that visit the site of disasters, such as shootings, terrorist attacks, or natural disasters. These dogs provide comfort for the people affected by disasters, as well as for the emergency response people who are present.

To ensure that therapy dogs are well-behaved and polite, many therapy dog agencies have several requirements before a dog can be certified as a therapy animal. These typically include accepting touch in any area without a negative reaction, being healthy and up-to-date on all vaccinations, knowing some obedience commands, and being calm around new people, animals, or situations.

Therapy and assistive dogs can be any size or breed of dog, from a bulky Rottweiler to a rescued shelter mutt. For some people, though, one particular breed may be particularly beneficial.

The hairless Mexican Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo (pronounced Sho-Lo) is gaining attention for helping those with chronic pain.

The Xolo is a very old and rare breed of dog originating with the Aztecs of Mexico. It may actually be the first breed of domesticated dog to exist in the Americas. According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), the Xolo has been used for pain relief in the past:

“With a reputation as a healer, the breed and its warm skin is often put to use in remote Mexican and Central American villages to ward off and cure ailments like rheumatism, asthma, toothache and insomnia.”

The Xolo is gaining popularity in the United States for much the same reason. As explained by Paws for Comfort, which helps pair Xolos with people who have chronic pain, a dog’s core temperature tends to be around 103⁰F, as compared to a human’s normal temperature of approximately 98.6⁰F. A normal dog has insulating hair that acts as a barrier, but Xolos don’t have hair.

Because of this, a Xolo can act as a living heating pad, but without the need to reheat regularly. Xolos come in toy, small, and standard sizes, and the toy and small sizes are small enough to wrap around a sore neck. Additionally, Xolos are calm and attentive as pets and can be trained as service dogs. They do have a tendency to develop acne on occasion, so a gentle bath might be a good way to celebrate National Dog Day with a Xolo.

No matter the breed or the level of training, a dog can be beneficial to someone with chronic pain.

As stated about dogs at the Fighting Fibromyalgia blog:

“They provided much needed emotional support and companionship.  It’s so easy to feel isolated by chronic pain.  The people in your life do their best to empathize, but they don’t really know what it feels like to be in chronic pain.  If you look into a dog’s eyes though, you see understanding staring back at you.”

In addition to providing unconditional love and emotional support, dogs give people with chronic pain something to focus on other than their own pain.  Also, it’s been proven that exercise can help manage chronic pain. On days when someone might otherwise lay in bed all day, a dog can encourage him or her to get up and play or go for a walk. National Dog Day is a great excuse to take the family dog out for an extra-long walk or a robust game of fetch.

Many dog rescue organizations suggest that shelter dogs are among the best pets, because they’re infinitely grateful and happy to have been rescued from the shelter. No matter where a dog comes from, though, it will almost undoubtedly bring joy and love with it.

How will you celebrate National Dog Day?

Image by Maja Dumat via Flickr         

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