Denise Hall: Best and healthiest friend for many

Q&A: Brídín Ashe
Dogs have evolved to become acutely attuned to human behaviour.

“Beara PAWS for Wellbeing” is a recently formed group which highlights the positive impact that dogs can have on physical and mental health, and celebrates the unique human-dog bond.

With the Beara Camera Club, they recently organised an exhibition of photographs celebrating the relationship between older people and their dogs.

This innovative project has been developed by the HSE in conjunction with local community groups, and they are looking forward to their second event, the Blessing of Pets on October 4, a special date which is also World Animal Day and the Feast Day of St Francis of Assisi. The woman behind the idea is HSE community worker Brídín Ashe. More from Brídín later.

In a survey conducted by the American Heart Association, Dr Glenn Levine observed that several studies had shown that dogs decrease our reaction to stress, with decreased heart rate, blood pressure and adrenaline-like hormone release when a pet is present.

As a part of the survey, 48 stressed stockbrokers with hypertension were put on medication to lower their blood pressure. Those in one group were told to adopt a dog or a cat. 

Six months later, the researchers found that this group were far calmer than those without pets. If it can work for hyper stockbrokers, think what dogs could do for the rest of us.

Beara Paws also has plans for 2016, such as developing dog walks in conjunction with the Men’s Shed in Allihies, and perhaps organising a monthly walk on the strand over the winter months, and a special project where people visit elders who love dogs, but can’t look after one anymore.

Research conducted by UCSF University Michigan has found that children’s risk of developing allergies and asthma is reduced when they are exposed in early infancy to a dog in the household, and this helps to build the immune system.

Dogs play an important part in many people’s lives. They have been trained to detect seizures, help with speech therapy sessions, and a wide range of other vital services.

More than any other animal, dogs have evolved to become acutely attuned to humans and our behaviour and emotions. 

And although they acquire understanding of a wide number of words, they are the undoubted masters of non-verbal communications. 

Sometimes a quick glance toward the back door, then back to their owners, will do the trick — or maybe the picking up and dropping on the floor of an empty feed bowl.

In our house, Daisy the St Bernard has become known as mistress of The Look. Her technique has been refined over several years.

Now, she simply sits a few feet away from her intended victim and fixes them with an unflinching stare.

If it’s because she wants to occupy the dog bed where her buddy Jack is sleeping, within a very few minutes, he will get up slowly and, head down, slink off guiltily to another spot.

The funny thing is that when it’s my attention Daisy wants, even if I’m otherwise occupied and not looking in her direction, eventually I somehow become aware of her mournful gaze, and find myself paying her the attention she feels she deserves. And when a St Bernard puts on a sad face, they can look seriously tragic. 

Dogs have the uncanny ability to look into your eyes and gauge your mood, to decide whether you are about to eat ice cream and watch television for the night, or whether there’s any chance of a walk, or maybe even a frisbee-throwing session.

These masters of mood have even been known to work their magic on hardened criminals who, in some forward-thinking US prisons, have raised and trained dogs to help those with disabilities, and many prisoners shed a quiet tear when they have to say goodbye to their canine friends. 

Long term changes in behaviour have been recorded after interaction with dogs, in prisoners who may have experienced a rewarding two-way relationship for the first time.

Brídín, tell me why you decided to build this particular project around dogs?

A small amount of funding that could be directed to the Beara Peninsula became available, and since I grew up on a farm and have always had dogs myself, I was well aware of the huge benefits dogs can bring into people’s lives. 

The project’s brief was to come up with something that would positively affect people’s physical and mental health, so I started exploring the idea of making dogs the central theme.

Of course, this was all dependent on what local people thought of the idea themselves, and I was very pleased when I got such a positive response.

The photographic exhibition was very well attended, and the photos supplied by the Beara Camera Club were beautiful, very evocative. Now we’re looking forward to the Blessing on October 4.

What’s your own background, Brídín?

Well, community work in different forms, essentially. Since I joined the HSE, I’ve worked supporting childcare groups, older persons and the West Cork Travellers Centre in Clonakilty.

In West Cork, isolation and transport can be big problems, and it’s true to say that local volunteer groups that have evolved have done amazing and invaluable work. It can be difficult to meet everyone’s needs.

I believe you are involving young people as well?

Yes, we’re running a schools competition, starting on October 9. The children will be writing about how their dog makes them feel, and we’ve had some wonderful responses. One little boy wrote, “My dog makes me feel invincible”. 

Another young lad said that his dog makes him feel confident. And of course, owning a dog means you’ll be getting more exercise and a better level of contact with the natural world.

The Blessing of Pets sounds like a very special day.

Yes I’m sure it will be. Fr Danny from Eyeries will be conducting the blessing.

The Dog’s Trust and the ISPCA will be there too, giving advice on all aspects of dog care, and the right dog for you. People are asked to have their dogs on leads, or other pets in cages.

It’s taking place on the pier, and there will be a cup of tea too. It’s a time when we can reflect on how much dogs do for us, and how we need to repay them with proper love and care, as well as an opportunity for a community get-together.”


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