Love, Patience and Your Dog’s Holistic Health
There is a popular phrase that I see frequently on merchandise and on social media. It reads, “If love would have saved you, you would have lived forever” and is used to commemorate our love for our dogs. It speaks to me because I feel that way about all of the dogs I have loved who have gone to the Rainbow Bridge.
I’ve been writing for a few years about being a compassionate, loving, patient dog owner. I also write posts about holistic health and creating a lifestyle for our dogs that is as free of toxins as possible. To be entirely honest, I have struggled for a while on whether or not those two distinct topics really belong together on the same blog. Since those are my areas of expertise and passion, I have written about them even if they did not go together. However, while I was teaching my Holistic Dog 101 course, it really clicked in my head that love is essential to any conversation about our dogs’ holistic health.
What does love have to do with it?
Let’s go back to that quote for a minute. I did some research and found that it is part of a poem by a woman named Jennifer Ag. It is called If Love Could Have Saved You and I found the full version on a website called Pet Loss Matters,
“If love could have saved you
If hugs could have healed you
If friendship could have cured you
You surely would still be with me.
If kisses could have kept you breathing
If treats and petting kept your heart beating
If devotion could have mended your wounds
Your gentle voice would not be silent.
If love could have saved you
You would surely still be with me
But even though you are not
You will always be my best friend.”
Source: Pet Loss Matters
The Mind-Gut Axis
Holistic health means supporting all of the various systems of a dog or a human as interconnected, and love is most definitely part of the equation. You see, there is something called the mind-gut axis. Your gut is your digestive system, and your mind is, of course, your brain. We have this mind-gut axis and so do our dogs.
Essentially, having a healthy digestive system helps your brain function better, and a healthy brain helps your gut work better. It’s a two-way street, so ideally, you want your brain and your gut to both be living the good life.
Research also shows that a healthy digestive system increases your immune system function, so when you put all of this together it becomes clear that a healthy, happy brain leads to a healthy gut that’s working well, which leads to better immunity.
The Physical Power of Love
A loving environment cultivates feelings of emotional fulfillment and peace. This is true for dogs and humans. True love, especially in the role of a dog owner, includes making sure that someone has their needs met. For dogs, this includes training them so that they understand the rules of the house.
When you love your dog and you follow through on training them, the dog will flourish. He or she will know the rules of the house and feel confident and relaxed as they go through their lives. When you love them and praise them they will feel happier and more content because they want to please you. Their gut will function better and help the immune system do its job.
Conversely, a dog who does not understand the rules of their home lives a life of anxiety and uncertainty. When they continue to get into trouble day after day, their life is chaotic and scary. Their mind will not be at optimal health because of this stressful lifestyle and this will contribute to an unhealthy gut and reduced immunity.
Oxytocin and Cortisol
Not only does love cause us to do things that are good for our mental peace, but love actually causes us to produce a hormone that has health benefits. Oxytocin, or the love hormone, increases when we feel love. In 2015, studies showed that dogs and their owners experienced increases in oxytocin when they looked at each other. That’s just looking at each other; imagine what happens when we are in a mind-meld as we go through our everyday lives together.
Other studies show that increased oxytocin reduces mental stress and physical pain. In fact, in one medical abstract, I learned, “Oxytocin can induce anti-stress-like effects such as reduction of blood pressure and cortisol levels. It increases pain thresholds, exerts an anxiolytic-like effect and stimulates various types of positive social interaction. In addition, it promotes growth and healing. Repeated exposure to oxytocin causes long-lasting effects by influencing the activity of other transmitter systems, a pattern which makes oxytocin potentially clinically relevant.”
And one of the best things? You and your dog benefit emotionally and physically from increased cortisol levels. I think we all owe our early ancestors and the wolves who befriended them a great big thank you.
So is love all you need for holistic health?
Of course, love is not all that you need to live a long and healthy life. If that were true, we would have immortality in real life and not just in fiction. We still are mortals and all living, breathing creatures have a life-span. Love is only one part of the equation of holistic health.
Don’t we all love our dogs?
I am pretty realistic that most people who take the time to read this blog probably already love their dog. If they don’t, a blog probably isn’t going to change the way that they feel. But not everyone knows how to translate love into providing what our dogs need. Not everyone understands that when we love them, we have an obligation to train them and teach them what to do. And finally, not everyone understands that dogs and humans do not always show love the same way. I guess the best way to explain why I talk about loving our dogs is to promote emotional intelligence as dog owners so that our level of care for our dogs matches our level of affection.
Dogs Have Different Social Norms Than Humans
All animals have ways of showing affection, respect, dominance, submission, love, fear. In the same way that different cultures of humans have different mannerisms and cultural norms, so do animals. While we humans show love by holding someone close, that can be considered to be aggressive or dominant to a dog and they feel stress. When we show them love the way they want to feel loved, it helps their mind be happy and healthy.
My Jackson is a great example of this. Hugs and over the top affection are stressful to him. This is actually common in many dogs. I have to force myself to limit the hugs and kisses that I give him. As much as I want to wrap him in my arms and hold him close, I know by his body language that he hates that. He leans away, he turns his head away from me, and if I persist, he will get up, walk away, and go lay down in his kennel. He loves to snuggle with my husband because my husband just pets his head or his back. He does not try to shower him with hugs and kisses.
I used to be emotionally devastated because I thought for a long time that he just was not an affectionate dog. The reality is that he is very affectionate and loving as long as we do not try to “George” him, a term we use to describe over the top hugging and squeezing that we took from a classic Looney Tunes cartoon. As long as we snuggle with Jackson on his terms he is very loveable and the cortisol is flowing through all of us.
Other Contributors to Dog’s Holistic Health
Creating a holistic life for our dogs means taking steps to keep toxins out and the immune system boosted. Love is a big component but it is not the only part of this lifestyle. It will not keep our beloved dogs with us forever. However, it will make the time we do have together the best that it can be. Love makes us happy, being happy helps us be more healthy, and we live better, more full lives with our beloved canine best friends.