During the 18th century the benefit of animals in asylums was identified as helping to encourage “benevolent feelings”, to the extent that by the 19th century the British Charity Commissioners recommended animals be added to institutions to create a better environment. Even Florence Nightingale recognised that bedbound patients gained pleasure from the presence of a bird.
Since then, there have been many more scientific studies focusing on the effect of animals on human health and wellbeing. The Friedman and Colleagues Study (1980) found that dog owners were 8.6 times more likely to be alive one year after a heart attack than non-dog owners. More recent studies have shown dog owners are better equipped to deal with the effects of stressful events, have reduced blood pressure and lower levels of anxiety, loneliness and depression.
Levinson’s study in 1962 opened up the way for animal-assisted therapy when he noticed patients developing a rapport with his dog. Those who did were more likely to respond well to therapy while the dog was present. His initial observations have since been substantiated and dogs have become the most commonly used type of animal for a whole range of therapies. They are regularly used to bring their unique brand of health and wellbeing benefits to schools, hospitals, care homes, adults and children with disabilities and people with autism.
Dogs are a fantastic way to meet people (think networking!) and owning a dog, apparently, significantly increases your chances of talking to a complete stranger – the cuter and cuddlier the dog, the more new people will want to talk to you. The very act of walking a dog brings great health benefits too.
When talking about dogs we must not forget the ones that support the day-to-day care and preserve the independence of people with disabilities. Dogs are clever enough to be trained to serve as an alert system for conditions such as diabetes and epilepsy and even sniff out some human diseases including cancer.
Dogs can also help us with our mindfulness. Their ability to live in the moment and enjoy it gives us pause for thought: imagine the look on a dog’s face as you offer it a treat, or when it’s sleeping peacefully at your feet. They remind us to stop and enjoy the now, which can be a rare thing in our hectic lives.
So what does all this mean for the workplace?
According to the HSE UK there were 526,000 workers suffering from work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2016/2017 and in turn there were an estimated 12.5 million sick days taken as a result of this. Stress, depression or anxiety accounts for 40 per cent of all work-related ill health cases and 49 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health. If dogs can help with this, shouldn’t we be considering them as part of staff wellbeing and resilience strategies?
We would, of course, in HR need to be assured of the enhancement of everyone’s wellbeing. There may be people who are allergic, feel stressed due to phobias or have had a bad experience with an ill-trained animal. But with agile working maybe they could work from home on dog day or reversely perhaps we should be encouraging staff who have dogs to work more from home, to gain the benefit of their canine companions.
Taking that into account, if dogs can lower our blood pressure, help us deal with stress, get us fit as well as make new friends, maybe we should be thinking more about them being at work for life, not just for Bring Your Dog To Work Day?