Dogs can tell when we’re stressed or sad, they’re so much more than “just pets”.

24 Nov, 2022 | Relationships

5 Minute Read

Words by WYLDE MOON staff writer

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Chilli the dog

It’s one of the greatest love affairs– an owner and their dog – as Marina Gask discovered…

…but it can also come with heartbreak.

My dog Chilli, a chocolate and white collie cross, is the soppiest girl on the planet and my ultimate comfort blanket. On a bad day, a particularly sad one, or even a glad one, there’s nothing like sinking my hand into her fur to make me feel better.

She’s been there for me through life’s toughest times – difficult moments at work, bereavements, domestic dramas, menopause and empty nest syndrome.

My husband Tad is usually out of the door and off to work before I’ve woken up. My sons are too busy enjoying life at Uni, carving out a career and learning how to be men. But, Chilli is always there. My one-woman girl squad – all loving, non-questioning, unconditionally on my team – she looks at me with those deep brown eyes and always knows when I need a cuddle.

Chilli as a puppy

Dont think Im a needy person, I have loads of friends, love my work and my family, in fact Im always doing something. But Chilli reaches the parts no-one else can reach. Anyone who has a much-loved pet – cat, dog or gerbil -will know what I mean.  She makes life better and the bond we share cannot be underestimated. She not only provides fun, companionship and comfort she gets me off the sofa for her twice daily walks.

So it was no surprise to me when I discovered that according to research logged by the RSPCA, dogs really do understand how we are feeling. They recognise emotions in our faces, and can recognise happy expressions from sad ones. They can sniff out human emotions too. When they were given sweat samples from humans who had watched videos that had made them happy or scared the dogsbehaviour changed. The pets showed signs of stress and their heart rates altered when they were exposed to human fear smells. They sought more reassurance from their owners and were less sociable with strangers. Dogs have even been shown to mirror our behaviour – you know those dogs who look like they are smiling back at you… they actually are! They also behave differently depending on the tone of your voice, responding to your mood.

“Dogs make people seem kinder, friendlier and more trustworthy.”

Science has proven pets also boost our health and wellbeing. Studies show that interacting with animals helps lower blood pressure, reduces anxiety and decreases depression. It also boosts levels of the hormone oxytocin, the love hormone, which stops you feeling stressed and boosts your mood producing warm, fuzzy feelings, enhancing trust and empathy. Research has shown that simply petting a dog or cat lowers the stress hormone cortisol, it is why schemes to bring pets into hospitals to comfort patients are so popular.

Couples who own pets are said to have lower blood pressure and interact more with each other compared to ones who dont have one according to Psychology Today. Dogs make people seem kinder, friendlier and more trustworthy.

No wonder there are around 13 million pet dogs and 12.2 million cats in the UK, with 2.1 million Brits collecting a new pet in lockdown. For those of us who struggle with isolation, ill health or boredom, having a dog or cat to hang out with makes everything more bearable. It  forms close-knit ties that cant be broken.

Chilli making friends

Chilli came into my life at the perfect time. Living in an all-male household, I badly needed some girl company. Eleven weeks old when we collected her from the rescue, she didnt leave my side from that moment onwards. Through puppy training and numerous mishaps (like that time she chased a fox and didnt come back for 10 hours!), weve only grown closer.

As the hormonal mood changes of menopause made me extra-emotional, Id hug her soft furry head. In fact, shes so attuned to any weep fests that she runs over to put her head in my lap, sensing when Im upset.

A dog doesnt care if you are rich or poor, educated or illiterate, clever or dull. Give him your heart and he will give you his,wrote John Grogan  in his international best seller Marley and Me. So true. No wonder it became a hit movie with Owen Wilson .

She doesnt care if Im not witty or living my best life on social media. All she wants is a tummy rub and the prospect of walkies and dinner.

She loves our (now grown-up) boys and sleeps on their beds if she can get away with it. In the local park shes a friend-maker, bounding over to greet all the other dog walkers. Everyone knows Chillis name even if they dont know mine. 

Chilli at home

In the summertime she could be employed as a post-picnic park hoover, homing in on a stray Dorito from a mile away. Shes a joyous bouncy companion when she trots alongside me when I jog in the woods, sniffing her way through the undergrowth chasing foxes or squirrels. While I used to hate the smell of wet dog, Ive now become nose blind. I literally cant imagine life without my big furry gal pal.

But sadly I may soon have to. Her diagnosis last month with a malignant tumour has knocked me for six. Ive had sleepless nights worrying about the unthinkable and her suffering. But yet again Chilli has come to my rescue. She looks after me. Sensing my sadness, rubbing her nose against my hand.

Anyone who says its just a dog or cathas so missed the point when it comes to our pets. Chilli has done so much for me in the eight years shes been in my life. Ill do whatever I can to help her live her best life in the time she has left because she has helped me and my family live ours.

*Since publishing this article Chilli has had successful chemotherapy which shrank the tumour and means she needs no further treatment. Here is a picture of Chilli out on a walk thriving during her recovery…

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