National Dog Day is celebrated on August 26th each year, and it’s all about dogs and why they’re wonderful. For dog lovers, there’s no question: dogs enrich our lives and bring us unmeasurable joy and comfort. But it turns out that dogs can have real, measurable benefits on our lives, too.

The potential health benefits of a family dog start very early in life.

Eczema is a chronic skin condition, and children with eczema have an increased risk of allergies and asthma later in life. The number of children with eczema is increasing, but researchers have found a way to counter the increase in kids with eczema. A group of researchers, led by Dr. Tolly Epstein, studied the effect of a family dog on children’s risk of eczema development, noting:

“The researchers found that children who tested positive for dog allergies were less likely to develop eczema by age 4 years if they owned a dog before age 1 year. According to Dr. Epstein, ‘Children with dog allergies who did not own dogs were 4 times more likely to develop eczema.’”

Additionally, having a dog may be associated with a reduced risk of heart disease in adults. In people who have already experienced a heart attack, having a dog can lead to an increased likelihood of a longer life. This might be due, at least partly, to the increased physical activity that dog owners tend to engage in. Not only do owners who walk their dogs get some exercise from the daily walk, but they’re also more likely to get additional types of exercise throughout the day.

Your dog might also help lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, as well as lower your risk of obesity. Dogs can even counteract the effects of stress on the body.

The stress relief provided by dogs can reach into several aspects of your day-to-day life.

Employees who take their dogs to work with them tend to be less stressed. Even coworkers can feel the benefits of a dog in the work place, since a dog can provide an easy ice breaker for a mood-lifting social interaction.

The benefits of a dog are even more profound in higher-stress situations. In women with HIV/AIDS, having a pet and identifying as a pet owner was shown to positively impact their self-management of the disease. In cancer patients undergoing radiation and chemo therapy, researchers have observed marked declines in emotional well-being. This is understandable, since these types of therapy negatively impact physical and overall well-being. However, when cancer patients were visited by therapy dogs, their reported emotional well-being increased instead of decreased.

Dogs are also a big part of their owners’ social lives.

Families with a pet tend to report feeling happier and closer. When a family includes a child with autism, this is even more noticeable. Children with autism can have trouble with social interactions and friendship, but a dog doesn’t care if a child understands the rules of socialization. A dog simply loves unconditionally, and this can give anyone – but especially autistic children and their families – a stronger sense of well-being, happiness, and security.

Dogs also act as an ice breaker. It’s easy to go up to a stranger and strike up a conversation about his or her dog. Even in veteran’s hospitals and among Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes, having a dog in the room will increase the number of verbal interactions taking place. Residents of long-term care facilities are also more likely to attend group activities if an animal is present.

Consider helping a homeless dog on National Dog Day.

If you’ve been thinking about getting a dog, there’s no better time. Petfinder.com has lots of great dogs looking for homes. You can also go to your local shelter to adopt a dog, or call a couple local vet’s offices to ask about adoptable dogs or nearby rescue organizations. Fostering a dog through a shelter is also a good way to ease into dog ownership without making a life-long commitment.

If you’re not able to adopt a dog right now, volunteering is a fantastic way to celebrate National Dog Day. For those who get teary-eyed volunteering at shelters that euthanize unadoptable dogs, look for a local no-kill shelter to volunteer at. If you can’t find a no-kill shelter to volunteer at but still want to help, keep in mind that lots of animal shelters have volunteer jobs available that don’t require you to come into contact with animals. That way you don’t risk falling in love and accidentally bringing home a dog you can’t afford to keep.

Another easy way to help local dogs is to go on a shopping trip at a local pet supply store. Pick up toys, treats, food, and even dog beds that you think a dog would like, and then donate your haul to a local shelter. You can check many shelters’ websites beforehand; they might have a wish list of items they desperately need.

Take National Dog Day as an excuse to spoil the dog (or dogs) you already have, too.

Does your dog love car rides? Take him or her out for coffee or lunch at a drive-through. Many places offer dog treats at the window. Some might even offer special treats for dogs, like Good Times’s “Pawbender” or the “Puppaccino” from Starbucks. If your dog is on a diet, head for a dog park or dog-friendly beach.

Also, a dog can never have enough toys. Surprise your dog with a new toy (or 20). To make National Dog Day extra special, leash up your dog and go to a store that allows dogs, like PetSmart or PetCo, and let your pup pick out a few toys.

Some dogs love to be pampered. A relaxing brush, a fun bath, or a soothing massage can be heaven for some dogs. For dogs who are a little nervous about bath time, make it a special occasion by tossing in some ice cubes with treats in the middle, or even a few frozen peas.

Of course, one of the reasons dogs are so great is their ability to find joy in the simplest of things. Just taking a few minutes to play an extra game of fetch or to teach your dog a new trick will likely put a big smile on his or her face.

In addition to dogs, consider helping fellow dog lovers on National Dog Day.

If you have an elderly neighbor or a friend who’s sick, offer to take his or her dog for a walk, or ask if he or she would like help pooper-scoopering the yard. Take the time to bring your veterinarian (or your local emergency vet) a card or small gift to show how much you appreciate all he or she does for your family.

If you have a well-behaved, outgoing dog, consider sharing him or her. Call ahead to ask first, but friend or family members who love animals but aren’t able to keep them might be delighted to have the chance to visit with your dog. Some nursing home and care facilities also allow dogs to visit. Just be sure to call first and ask about requirements. Some might only allow certified therapy dogs, but others might just require proof of vaccinations.

Dogs make our lives brighter in countless ways, as Shadow the dog states so well in the movie Homeward Bound:

“It’s built in. Has been ever since the dawn of time… when a few wild dogs took it upon themselves to watch over man, to bark when he’s in danger, to run and play with him when he’s happy, to nuzzle him when he’s lonely. That’s why they call us man’s best friend.”

However you decide to celebrate National Dog Day, do something to thank them for all they do for us.

What will you do to celebrate National Dog Day?

Image by Bil Kleb via Flickr

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