The email was in response to a dog column I write for the San Francisco Chronicle. The subject line read "Stupid dog freak".

"Here's some news for you," the email read. "Dogs are JUST ANIMALS. They are domesticated wolves with small brains. They don't even know they are alive, nor can they appreciate a single thing you're doing for them. You should be helping your fellow man, instead of wasting your efforts on flash-in-the-pan lower species."

Let me get this straight: Because dogs are "just animals" they don't deserve to be loved or cared for? Loving animals has never prevented me from "helping my fellow man." I work at a nonprofit organization, religiously recycle, donate to shelters, and baby sit, pet sit and house sit for friends. I haven't yet found a cure for cancer, but hey, there are only so many hours in a day. Still, I'm afraid my humble efforts pale in comparison to our canine companions. Because the fact is, many of these "domesticated wolves with small brains" do more to help human kind on a daily basis than do most people in a lifetime.

Throughout the country, children are learning to enjoy books by reading to a nonjudgmental canine listener in programs such as Paws to Read (Pleasanton, CA), Dog Day Afternoons (Salt Lake City, UT) and Sit, Stay, Read (Birmingham, AL). There are service dogs for the visual and hearing impaired, police dogs, search and rescue dogs, and therapeutic companion dogs for seniors, shut-ins, and the clinically depressed. There are dogs that work as "medic alerts," predicting seizures, dangerously low-blood sugar levels, and now we're discovering, even cancer.

A canine's sense of smell is generally 10,000 to 100,000 times superior to that of humans. A recent U.K. study found that dogs sniffing urine detected "a specific profile of aromas linked to the abnormal metabolic products of cancer cells." As a result, a dog's sharp sense of smell may one day prove to be a non-invasive way to detect bladder cancer. Sure beats the current detection methods, which require inserting a fiber-optic instrument into the bladder via the urethra.

Another article referenced studies that find a canine's sense of smell may also be used to detect prostate cancer in human urine. Not to mention several reports where guardians discovered they had a cancerous lesion (melanoma) thanks to their dog's persistent sniffing of the spot.

I contacted Dr. Marty Becker, the veterinarian correspondent for ABC-TV's, Good Morning America. He knows firsthand about the therapeutic value of pets, having spent 18 months researching the subject for his book, The Healing Power of Pets (Hyperion Press 2002). In our email correspondence he wrote:

"The late Dr. Robert Poresky was a human development and family studies professor at Kansas State University. His studies showed a small but significant increase in the IQ scores of children who cared for animals in their home." Dr. Becker also mentioned Dr. Mark Smith, a psychopharmacologist and National Institute of Health researcher who specializes in mood disorders.

"He talks about the ability of dogs to help people with manic-depression or Bipolar disease. Dogs can detect people in the earliest stages of mania, a time when people do things like spend their savings in a single weekend on frivolous purchases or have a weekend of sexual promiscuity."

Finally, Dr. Becker referenced a British study that followed a woman accompanied by a yellow Labrador retriever while she went about her daily routine for five days, and then for five more days without the dog. With the dog, the woman spoke with 156 people or more than thirty people a day. Without the dog, only fifty people or ten a day.

"The study found dogs serve as a social lubricant and conversation catalyst," Dr. Becker said. "The positive interactions stimulated by the dog are key to a greater sense of psychological well-being for the humans."

He concluded: "You never come home and find your dog's suitcases packed or a note saying they don't love you anymore or they've found someone else. Dogs don't take the day off from greeting you at the door because they're mad at you or refuse to go for a walk because they have something better to do. Dogs don't posture for personal gain and have no hidden agendas. They just display unconditional love and limitless affection and loyalty."

And dogs aren't just good for the heart and soul: they may very well save your life. When I Googled the words "Dog saves" thousands of postings appeared. These included a Toy poodle whose barking alerted a sleeping Tennessee family to a house fire, a dog in the Philippines whose barking warned of an approaching landslide, a Golden retriever in New York who alerted a mother to her choking child, a Pit Bull in Alaska who saved a child from a burning home, and an Australian blue heeler in Florida who protected his injured guardian from an approaching alligator.

Dogs do great things for humans every day, even if it's just being there for us when we get home. This is precisely why many people would choose a dog with a small brain over a human with no heart any day of the week.

That, my friend, is a no-brainer.

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