Dogs have their day helping the sick to recover

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THINGS could not have been much worse. Craig Livingstone was sitting in his Bathgate home desperately wondering what on earth he was going to do.

The 50-year-old had only just seen off a bout of depression and was struggling to manage his diabetes. Now he had been delivered a hammer blow – his employer, Lloyds Banking Group, told him he was being made redundant.

At that moment, he sat in the knowledge that both his physical and mental health were about to go downhill fast.

Fast forward six months and thanks to a wonder “treatment” the opposite is true.

But it is not a new drug or therapy which has helped him stop the rot – it is a four-legged friend.

It may not seem like the most obvious route to recovery, but Craig’s progress – which sees him walk dogs for two hours a day – backs up new calls by the charity Dogs Trust for the NHS to consider “prescribing” the company of dogs.

“It’s really improved things for me,” he says.

“I was off with depression before, then on my first day back at work I had to fill out an application for my own job, which wasn’t great.

“But I knew it was important not to slide into a trap of just sitting in the house all day doing nothing.

“I went through a few days of that, but the Dogs Trust volunteering has really saved me.

“It’s just important to be doing something productive, even just to get fresh air. It’s made a huge difference to me.

“I can’t really think how things would have worked out without it.”

The Dogs Trust says that canine companions can ease the symptoms of a range of conditions and thinks it now has some evidence to prove it from a study.

The charity runs a centre in West Calder, which is home to more than 70 dogs, and Craig attends as a volunteer every week day to exercise the animals.

The research by the Dogs Trust highlighted a list of physical and mental health benefits it says dogs have been proven to provide.

Those include helping the development of children with learning disabilities; reducing the likelihood of allergies; and helping the recovery of patients after heart surgery.

The study also suggested children who grow up in canine-friendly households are healthier and have less sick days off school, while experts suggested dog owners – on average – have lower blood pressure than those who are petless.

Phil McCarlie-Davis, a co-ordinator for the organisation, helped conduct the research and wrote a paper based on the results, which calls on the country’s health authorities to consider the conclusions.

He says: “We undertook this research as we were aware of the health benefits of dog ownership but wanted to fully evaluate its potential.

“We understand that not everyone is in a position to own a dog and urge anyone looking to improve their lifestyle to consider volunteering at one of our 17 rehoming centres, including the one in West Calder.

“We hope that GPs in Scotland will encourage patients to engage with dogs as our four-legged friends really do provide you with a happier and healthier lifestyle.”

It may sound an outlandish suggestion to some, but health chiefs are increasingly open to less traditional ideas, particularly when it comes to dealing with mild to moderate depression. Doctors are gradually moving away from prescribing pills and have been urged to look at alternative treatments.

And while they have stopped short of recommending spending time with pooches, they do actively encourage exercise, reading and other activities like swimming.

One care home in Lanark has become the first to advertise “the dog prescription” in its waiting room.

In addition, the use of “therapets”, where dogs spend time with people with conditions like autism to bring them happiness or tranquility, is common.

It should be an appealing approach from a financial point of view too.

With NHS health boards in Scotland increasingly hard up for cash, and charities struggling for both grants from the state and public donations, rolling out the use of dog therapy could help two sectors.

Not only would patients receive treatment that was basically free, but animal organisations would have fresh access to volunteers.

“We’ve got different paths here and so much space for them to run about,” says Craig, whose favourite dog at West Calder is a lurcher called Shane.

“Of course you have your favourite dogs, and you can request which one you want to walk.

“I needed to lose weight because of my diabetes, and in the time I’ve been doing this I can feel myself getting fitter.

“I would urge anyone to do this. It definitely works. You can see that when you look at therapets, who work with kids and even go into prisons to help the rehabilitation there.

“I’m still on the lookout for work of course, and if I did get a job I would still make the effort to come down here at the weekends.

“The dogs when they are in their cages obviously crave attention, and you can really see the enjoyment when they are out being walked.

“The thing is, you just get unconditional love from them, and that makes some amount of difference.”

Canine comfort

1 Dogs can help the development of children with learning and educational difficulties

2 Children that grow up with dogs are said to be healthier and spend more time in school

3 Owning a dog helps reduce the risk of allergies in children, in particular, asthma, wheezing and eczema

4 Dog owners are said to make fewer visits to their GP and spend less time in hospital

5 Dogs can reduce depression and improve mental well-being in humans

6 Dog ownership aids the recovery of coronary patients

7 Owning a dog can help lower blood pressure in children and adults

8 Dogs can help the elderly by combating feelings of loneliness and isolation

9 Dog owning adults and children are more physically active and healthier than non-dog owners

10 Dogs can provide a great emotional support for humans during periods of stress and anxiety

* According to Dogs Trust research