By Steve Dale, for USA WEEKEND
Science is only beginning to understand the intrinsic relationship we have with dogs.
"I always want dogs in my life," says Katherine Heigl- and it appears that will pay off for her in multiple ways. The mere act of petting a dog can cause a chain of events. Instantly, neurotransmitters in our heads do a happy dance - it's involuntary.
We feel good.
When we feel good, we are more likely to smile. Whenever we smile, still more neurotransmitters are fired. That's why experts say just smiling is good for us.
Studies show that when petting a dog, a hormone called oxytocin kicks into high gear. Oxytocin, which is sometimes dubbed "the cuddle hormone," helps reduce blood pressure and decreases levels of cortisol, a hormone related to stress and anxiety.
If this is the case, might petting a dog be a substitute for an anti-anxiety medication? To at least some degree, the answer is yes. As a result, some doctors have suggested that dogs are sometimes better than Prozac.
For years it's been thought that sharing your life with a dog is healthful. Now scientists are not only confirming it's true, but they're also beginning to understand why.
It turns out that increased oxytocin may offer additional benefits. Just after childbirth, oxytocin levels in mothers soar, and it's thought that it cements a bond between mothers and newborns. Is our connection with dogs similarly bonded? No one knows.
And one more thing: Recent studies suggest people supplemented with oxytocin heal faster. Perhaps the healing properties of elevated oxytocin at least partially explain the benefits of therapy dogs.
For decades, there have been anecdotal stories of dogs visiting a children's hospital or rehab center and seeming to promote healing. In recent years, medical science has documented that such benefits can be real.
Even the simple act of taking a dog for a walk is healthful. There's the obvious cardiovascular benefit. Also, as Rebecca A. Johnson, Alan M. Beck and Sandra McCune say in their book, The Health Benefits of Dog Walking for Pets & People, dogs are a social lubricant. That's a fancy way of saying you are more likely to stop and chat with people when you have a wagging tail at the end of a leash.
All dog owners know that strangers who wouldn't give you a second glance, much less stop to chat, might do so if you have a dog. Or at least people may more likely smile as they walk by. Since we know smiling helps people feel good, walking a dog is a way to spread a little bit of happiness.
No wonder the presence of dogs in a community is considered an important barometer when measuring quality of life.
Actor John O'Hurley, host of the National Dog Show Presented by Purina each Thanksgiving, says, "When a dog wags his tail, it is connected to his heart." Apparently, those tail wags are also connected to our hearts, and our heads.