Why We Love Dogs, #2

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They’re great company. No errand is boring with a dog along. When I lived in New York City, Leia, our golden retriever at the time, would happily accompany me to the basement to do the laundry, or to the open-air market while I bought fruits and vegetables for dinner (never, of course, taking my eye off her as she waited, tied to a parking meter). I have never known a dog to fail to respond with complete enthusiasm to any sentence that begins, “Want to go…” even if the end of the sentence is, “to the dump” or even “to the vet”?

Since this is being posted in the summer, I do have to add one caveat: if you take your dog along, be sure never to leave him or her in a car, even for a minute. Even with the windows partway open, heat inside a vehicle can become deadly more quickly than most people imagine.

They expand our experience of the world, sensing things that are beyond our capabilities to perceive. Per “Dr. Dog Nose,” Professor Lawrence Myers, a researcher in Auburn University’s Institute for Biological Detection Systems in the School of Veterinary Medicine, dogs have 20 times more olfactory receptors than we humans do, and, although it’s impossible to quantify how much more powerful their sense of smell is than ours, he has occasionally estimated the number to be about a million times stronger. (Which makes their habit of putting their noses right down onto the stinkiest things all the more amazing.) Sitting outdoors with my canine companions I have always marveled at the way their noses are constantly working, wrinkling and twitching, nostrils flaring – chewing the air, I call it; extracting enormous amounts of information from scents undetectable to me.

The same with their hearing: our golden retriever, Rufus, would begin shaking at a thunderstorm I wouldn’t be aware of until it was booming in our immediate vicinity. On a happier note, he would also detect my husband’s car making the turn onto our road a quarter mile away – to me, if I heard it at all, it was just another engine, but to our dog it was a specific and identifiable cue to go to the door and wait — head cocked, tail wagging — to welcome his master home.

They help us. Dogs assist hunters and farmers. They help the blind navigate safely amid the perils of city streets, and turn on lights and fetch objects for the disabled. They can sense when a seizure-prone owner is about to have an episode, and alert her to get to a safe place and position. Their amazing powers of smell help law enforcement officers with drug detection and tracking suspects or finding lost persons. Their keen noses can even identify the malignant cells of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, helping doctors make an early diagnosis.

Dogs locate land mines. They dig through rubble after earthquakes and disasters to find victims and will wear themselves out until they succeed. A touching report after 9/11 described the distress of search and rescue dogs, who, in the absence of survivors, had to be given planted live humans to find so that they would not become despondent.

They give us emotional support. Perhaps this is the most important reason why we love dogs. They are attuned to our emotional states and ready to offer solace when they sense we’re unhappy. When my husband was undergoing debilitating cancer treatments, Rufus stayed near him, often with his head on his knee. During a bad time at my job, when I would come home in tears of frustration, my dog would bring me a toy and poke me with it repeatedly — “Hey, come on, lighten up and let’s have some fun.” He would make me laugh and realize that my trials were just a brief shadow passing over a life that was otherwise full of love and joy.

A Lutheran charity in Illinois travels the country with several golden retrievers, the “LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs.” Wherever a tragedy has occurred – an act of mass violence, a disaster – these human and canine ministers arrive to offer a consolation that can be deeper than words.

In the summer of 2013, my husband, son and I learned that the Comfort Dogs would be returning to Newtown, Connecticut, 15 miles from our home in Patterson, New York, to offer follow-up care to the families and friends of the slain Sandy Hook first-graders and staff members. The event was open to the public, and, having just lost Rufus, we sought balm for our hearts from these beautiful goldens.

Although our loss could not compare to the tragedies this community had endured, we were welcomed and invited to share the powerful comfort that hugging a gentle, warm, non-judgmental dog – or, in this case, six or eight of them — can give.

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This post has focused in large part on golden retrievers, but as I’ll describe in my next offerings, Gimme Shelter, Parts #1 and #2, every stellar and lovable canine quality can be found in shelter dogs, whether pure- or mixed-breed. Make a rescue organization your first option when looking for a four-legged best friend.

For more information about the LCC K-9 Comfort Dogs, visit http://www.lutheranchurchcharities.org/

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