Canine Friends to the End

Dogs provide emotional comfort, even to someone facing death.

Posted Sep 21, 2009

Dogs are great stress relievers for their human companions. Although this has been recognized by individual dog owners for millennia, the scientific evidence about the psychological benefits of having a dog around first confirmed about 30 years ago when a psychologist, Alan Beck of Purdue University and a psychiatrist, Aaron Katcher of the University of Pennsylvania, measured what happens physically when a person pets a friendly and familiar dog. They found that the person's blood pressure lowered, his heart rate slowed, breathing became more regular and muscle tension relaxed-all signs of reduced stress.

A recent study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine not only confirmed these effects, but showed changes in blood chemistry demonstrating a lower amount of stress-related hormones such as cortisol. These effects seem to be automatic, they do not require any conscious efforts or training on the part of the stressed individual. Perhaps most amazingly, these positive psychological effects are achieved faster-after only five to 24 minutes of interacting with a dog-than the result from taking most stress-relieving drugs. Compare this to some of the Prozac-type drugs used to deal with stress and depression, which alter the levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the body but can take weeks to show any positive effects.

There are some places in history, however, where the importance of dogs as a psychological comfort shows up dramatically, such as when a person chooses to have a dog with them at the time that they know that their death is immediately impending. Take the case of Queen Victoria of England. The small dogs that she came to love most in her later years were Pomeranians. She is responsible for the popularity of the smaller versions of this breed.

Victoria's fondness for her Pomeranians was quite intense. She actually set up a breeding kennel to perpetuate the line and to provide her with additional companions. On the 22nd of January, 1901, after 63 years as queen, Victoria lay dying. She and the doctors knew that this was most likely her last day. Propped up on a pillow Victoria ordered that her current favorite Pomeranian, Turi, be brought to her. When they arrived with Turi, Victoria lightly slapped the covers and her attendants gently placed the little dog on the bed in the place that she indicated. She began to stroke the dog, who snuggled close to her. Victoria paused for a moment and looked around her. "There is room for more than one dog," she said, "it is a very big bed." Turi licked her fingers and she produced the half-smile that indicated that she was at ease. A few hours later, Queen Victoria, the longest reigning monarch in the history of England, was dead.

Some people have chosen that their dogs be with them, to comfort them, at a time when their death was imminent from a more violent means. For example, Anne Boleyn, Henry the VIII's second queen had a greyhound named Urian, that she was quite fond of. Henry also seemed to like the dog since a note in 1530 indicates that he was willing to pay 10 shillings for a cow that Urian supposedly killed. When Henry decided to end his marriage by having his queen beheaded, legend has it that her final request was that Urian be allowed to accompany her to her execution to provide comfort. The dog apparently was spared her fate however.

Marie Antoinette was married to King Louis XVI of France. Because of her Austrian background she was not much liked by either the French court of the French people. In that hostile climate it is understandable that she clung to her dogs for comfort. Although her dogs were often referred to as spaniels, it is likely that they were Papillons, which were also known as squirrel spaniels because their bushy tails were carried curled over their backs, much like squirrels. Following the revolution she and Louis were sentenced to death. It is said that she went to the guillotine carrying her favorite dog, Thisbe.

Mary Queen of Scots also sought solace and comfort from her dog before her execution. Mary had the strongest claim to the throne of England after the children of Henry VIII. This claim (and her Roman Catholicism) made Mary a threat to Elizabeth I of England. Mary was betrothed to the French dauphin (later Francis II) and sent the girl to France where she spent many years. On the death of her husband, Mary returned to assume the role of Queen of Scotland and began to plot against Elizabeth. Through a convoluted series of events Mary eventually became Elizabeth's prisoner. She was locked in the Tower of London, and her main companions were her little spaniels and a Maltese.

In 1586 a plot to murder Elizabeth by a coalition of Catholic groups was discovered and Mary was charged with being an accomplice. She was brought to trial and although she defended herself with eloquence, there was overwhelming evidence of her complicity. Her execution, by beheading, was therefore ordered. She was sent to Fotheringhay to await her death. Her only consolation was that, after a direct appeal to Elizabeth, she was allowed to have her dogs with her.

One of Mary's dogs would serve as her companion one last time, to give her one last bit of comfort at the moment of her death. When the time came, Mary walked to the scaffold with slow steps. None knew that this was done to keep pace with the small white dog that was concealed under her long skirts and petticoats. Even after the axe had fallen the little dog did not move. Mr. Bull, the executioner, who was working with an assistant, finally discovered it. They had been given orders that everything splashed with Mary's blood was to be washed or burned "for fear someone might dip a piece of linen in it, as several of this country have done, who keep it as a relic of this act, to incite to vengeance those concerned for the death of the dead person." It was while untying Mary's garters, which in those days were tied at the knees, that Bull noticed the dog. It refused to leave the body, and even when dragged out by force it rushed back and lay between the severed head and shoulders. The poor beast now had its white coat covered with Mary's blood. One of the executioners took pity on the dog. It was carried away and washed clean. Instead of destroying the dog it was given to a French princess who asked for it as a memorial of her friend, and was granted it-on condition that the dog must be taken out of the country immediately. It was thus saved and completed its life in France.

It is remarkable evidence of the emotional support that dogs can provide to human beings that a person facing, what they know to be the end of their life, chooses to spend their last moments with their dog.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.

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