Dogs can improve your sensory function

This morning I had the pleasure of observing a wonderful male Bullfinch in the garden busily hunting for food for his young family. I’m fortunate enough to live in an area where I am surrounded by nature however, there is something special for me when I see a Bullfinch. Both males and females are magnificent birds, once driven to near extinction by humans but happily can now be seen in many places throughout the UK all year around. You may wonder why a dog behaviourist and psychologist is writing about this subject, but for me there is a direct link between dogs and the wider natural world that we live in. I grew up in the seventies an era before computers and mobile telephones, a time when play was outdoors and we used our imagination, curiosity and creativity to embrace our environment. I would do anything to avoid coming into the house especially during the long school summer holidays.

Male Bullfinch –

Interacting with a dog is for many children and those of us that live in cities and urbanisations an important link to nature and gives us the opportunity to exercise our senses. Touch is an important aspect for communication and there is research to suggest that adult primates become more aggressive when touch is not used, touch is also an important way of making up. Think about a handshake or a comforting embrace and how important these are to our own communication repertoire. In the present climate many of us are finding it challenging to be unable to visit our loved ones and embrace them. Calming touches with your dog increase the oxytocin levels in both you and your dog, helping to improve mood levels and promote relaxation. When you touch your dog you are using many skills including observation, concentration and focus without which a mutual touch, may become non-mutual. These are important skills and ones which as a child I was encouraged to develop by my parents. As a child in the seventies I lived in a mid sized town in a terraced council house, with no immediate access to natural wild areas to explore. However I remember fondly playing in the garden in the dirt observing earwigs and ants and other wonderful insects playing out their lives in a kind of natural soap opera. As I grew older I began to explore further afield and I remember playing in a local river looking for stickleback fish, frogs and birds such as herons and jays. I even went for long bicycle rides to the local forest with my sister, such was the draw to nature even traditional sibling rivalries were put to the side, for the opportunity to spend some time outdoors.

I was fortunate to be brought up around dogs and my parents had many different breeds from mixed rescue breeds, Afghan hounds to Chow Chows and I still fondly remember the dog in the picture above, Zak our purple tongued Chow Chow. Dogs create so many happy memories even at a very early age that last a lifetime. Giving children the opportunity to work or live with dogs at an early age will develop a life lasting respect for animals and the environment and form a social lubricant blueprint for their developing personality. Technology has introduced many positive developments into society and computers and mobile telephones are the most commonly used. These forms of technology allow us to contact our loved ones, provide easy access to research material and allow businesses to operate efficiently. But what they don’t do is provide the user with the type of sensory stimulation that working with a dog or observing wildlife does. Can computers and technology create the same type of memories that I have of a carefree and inquisitive boy who was encouraged by his parents to explore wildlife? When we buy cars we are asked if we would like to purchase entertainment systems to keep the children happy, what’s wrong with looking out of the window? Watching the landscapes change, different types of wildlife only found in specific locations and how suburbia blends into rural landscape. Looking out of the window is a great way to develop your focus, attention, creativity and imagination, and although an entertainment system is easy it will erode those wonderful senses that we have. To take a walk seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching costs nothing.

In my former role as a Police Officer I took part in an advanced driving course and one of the training methods we used was to give a full running commentary of what we observed, heard and anticipated, often at high speed and it was exhausting. I use this method when working with clients and their dogs who are developing their own environmental awareness skills and although tiring to begin with it develops your sensory skills to a high level. Technology can help us connect with nature by providing a vicarious view of it which can be shared, and I have used images of dogs and other animals myself on presentations to help reduce stress and anxiety amongst groups of students. But there is a difference between sitting in front of a computer and looking at pictures of animals and nature and getting out there and it shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to getting out there. Richard Louv in his book ‘Last child in the Woods’ highlights how our reduced time in nature can impact our children’s health. “As the nature deficit grows, another body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health” There is nothing quite as uplifting as sitting and watching groups of dogs play and as well as sharpening up your observation, attention and focus skills it is a great way to develop your understanding of dog behaviour. I have a bird hide at the bottom of my garden where I can sit and be amongst all of the wild birds whilst they feed. Its amazing to watch the different behaviours that the birds display from the gregarious goldfinches to the shy woodpecker and despite the bustling activity I find it extremely relaxing, a place of solitude, inspiration, healing and amazement at how wonderful nature is.

Touch is an important element of sensory function development that me and Angus work on with our students. A student asked me recently if they could touch Angus, they had never touched a dog before. This student is a quiet and polite student who has very low self-esteem and self-confidence and finds it very challenging to talk amongst groups of other students. Yet, such was the natural instinct and desire to touch Angus, he felt confident to ask to touch him. This type of work provides a bridge into the care and understanding of other sentient beings for many of my students, giving them an emotionally invested and meaningful relationship which optimizes their learning. This understanding develops into a wider understanding of the natural world that surrounds us, that every animal is important, feels love, sadness, pain and cares for their young just like we do. We are a society dependant on technology its part of our culture, and even at a personal use level many of us could not imagine a world without it. Relying on technology alone to educate and entertain is dulling our natural senses, stifling our creativity and widening the gap between ourselves and the amazing natural world.

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