Using Dogs as Healers

Humans have been using dogs as healers for thousands of years, and continue to do so today.

Service dogs are one way dogs can be used as healers.

Using dogs as healers in scientific and intuitive ways is not a new practice. From their presence at healing temples in the ancient world to their work as service animals, dogs can cure what ails humans.

Photo by Fotolia/Tifonimages

Content Tools

Humans took the first steps of domesticating canines, but somewhere along the way dogs began to affect the future of their masters dramatically. In A Dog’s History of the World (Baylor University Press, 2014), Laura Hobgood-Oster reminds us that humans and dogs would not have flourished without each other. The excerpt that follows, from chapter 3, looks at the historical and modern uses of dogs as healers.

Modern Science Using Dogs as Healers

When my younger son, Owen, and I were both seriously ill—him with liver failure, me with an aggressive prostate cancer—Bijou became even more than verb and miracle. She was a healing presence in our lives. Believe me, when your life is reduced to a huge question mark, nothing feels better than having a twenty-three-pound mutt snuggled up next to you. Owen and I both profoundly understood what a difference a dog makes as a healer.

The “Dogs Detect Cancer Project” is making incredible discoveries. Working with dog trainers and cancer researchers, the project is tapping into the amazing sense of smell, along with the eagerness to work, demonstrated by some highly motivated dogs. The goal is to save lives by detecting cancer early, earlier than is possible using any other available tests. Researchers capture breath samples for the dogs to smell, and the dogs are trained to alert when they detect cancer cells in a sample. This is the same process employed to train dogs to find drugs, identify arson, or search for missing people by detecting odor. Amazingly, or maybe not so amazingly for those who understand how sensitive and accurate a dog’s sense of smell is, there is a 98 percent accuracy rate in the tests conducted for lung and breast cancer. Another benefit to this process is that the procedure is non-invasive. But most significantly, the possibilities for very early detection go beyond any traditional medical tests available. Dogs display the ability to alert to “in situ, or stage zero, cancer.” Whereas humans, according to medical doctors, can often smell cancer on the breath when it has developed to stage 3 or 4 (late term cancer), tests suggest that dogs can smell cancer when it is still in the very beginning stages of development—earlier than any other cancer screening available, even the most advanced technological approaches.

This detection ability is based on something that has served dogs, and humans, well and helped them survive together for millennia—that incredible canine sense of smell. Dogs can smell at a sensitivity level that is almost beyond human comprehension. It is 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as the human sense of smell. As one researcher noted, a dog can smell one rotten apple in a barrel of two million. From the moment they are born, dogs rely on their noses. Watching puppies right when they enter the world is amazing. After the mom cleans the pups and gets the newborns breathing, they immediately sniff their way to her. The puppies have no vision or hearing yet, and as a matter of fact their eyes and ears might not open until they are two weeks old. So they rely on their ability to smell their way to their mother to nurse. Observing tiny puppies navigate the world with their noses is revealing. Indeed, it seems to be the primary way they experience their world.

However, the ability to smell certain proteins or chemicals in human bodies is not the only way that dogs are moving into the modern world of medicine. Scientific research points to myriad ways dogs can assist in the healing process, some very straightforward and technical, others based on their emotional impact on humans (which then leads to physiological changes). As already mentioned, their acute sense of smell is tapped in order to indicate cancer, but their powerful nose is also used to alert for seizures in people with epilepsy or signal the onset of hypoglycemia in diabetics. But the list does not stop there. Tests indicate that dogs’ ability to provide companionship lowers blood pressure and heart rates. Their work as service animals opens up connections for humans who are sometimes abandoned, ignored, or ostracized. And, in cultures increasingly concerned about obesity epidemics, dogs keep people active and moving. Thinking about and using dogs as healers in scientific and in intuitive ways is not a new phenomenon, even though some of the testing and methodologies have changed. Not surprisingly, dogs have been healing humans for thousands of years and in some amazing ways, even before advanced scientific methods could prove the benefits. From their presence at healing temples in the ancient Mesopotamian world to their work as therapy dogs bringing peace and calm to sites of tragedy, dogs can cure what ails humans.

Dogs as Healers in Ancient Times

“Lingua canis dum lingit vulnus curat.” (Latin, “A dog’s tongue, licking a wound, heals it.”)

There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. —Luke 16:19-21 (NRSV)

Images and statues of Saint Lazarus the Leper almost always include two dogs who are gently licking his sores. Usually the saint is propped on crutches and dressed in rags, symbolic of his position as the poor beggar whose only companions were the devoted dogs. His statues are paraded at Good Friday processions to recall his story, which was told by Jesus and recounted in the gospels. While the rich man ignored Lazarus completely, the canines remained his faithful companions. It is a common picture in myth and legend, dogs attending to ailing humans and working to heal their wounds. The connection emerged thousands of years ago as the gods and goddesses associated with healing began to share sacred space with dogs. And at curative shrines from Rome to Babylon to the British Isles, dogs were central players.

One of the earliest clues comes from the ancient Mesopotamian world where the powerful Sumerian-Babylonian goddess Gula, consort of the storm god, was revered as the great healer. Veneration of this goddess of healing endured for well over 1,000 years, likely longer as she morphed into different forms of the same goddess in surrounding cultures. Prayers, dedications, and incantations for recovery from illness or injury were sent to her. Interestingly, some of these prayers survive as carvings on small dog statues offered to the goddess. Not only through the prayer offerings carved into these clay canine figurines, but also in her sacred iconography, Gula is frequently accompanied by a dog. Sometimes she is pictured sitting on a throne which rests on a dog, and at other times the goddess is flanked by her dog and stars. The stars are important because in Babylonian astrology, Gula’s constellation is comprised of stars that form the shape of the goddess and her dog gazing at each other. Also known as “Lady of Health,” her main cultic center, at Isin, was called the “Dog Temple of Ninisina.” The temple at Isin was identified as a Gula-related healing site primarily because of the presence of dogs in the remains. These were not only clay figurines of dogs, though those also provided a hint, but there were also ritual burials of real dogs at this temple. These dog burials date back to 1,000 BCE.

But Gula is not just represented as a female human accompanied by a dog—she becomes a dog herself. By the seventh to fifth centuries BCE, this canine incarnation was the primary way to portray the “Lady of Health.” In some of these amazing images, a dog (now symbolizing Gula) is sitting on an elevated platform with a worshiper facing her; the person’s hands are raised in a typical pose denoting veneration. The incredibly close identification of dogs and the goddess helps to explain this ancient Assyrian list of activities that were offenses against Gula:

He did what did not please Gula but turned his face (away) so as not to know (it): He saw an injured dog and turned his face (away). Dogs fought and howled; he saw, but turned his face (away) so as not to know. He saw a dead dog but did not bury (it).

As late as the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar II (604–562 BCE), gold, silver, and bronze dogs were offered at Gula’s temple in Babylon in the hopes of curing illness. While it is unclear whether these temples served as the hospitals of their time, the link between Gula, dogs, and healing is unmistakable.

Dogs also became apotropaic forces, powerful balances in opposing malevolence or guarding against the “evil eye.” While this might seem a strange way to conceive of dogs as “healers,” in many cultures illness was (and still is) equated with possession by evil or demonic forces. In some of these contexts, ancient Babylonia and Assyria to name just two, the rabid dog was seen as particularly powerful. Because of this rulers often placed images of the rabid dog at the gates of their palaces and temples to ward off evil and, by association, disease. In this context dogs are, once again, an in-between, ambiguous animal. As polluted (rabid), they also purify.

Fascinating healing rituals involving puppies were also part of Hittite culture, which thrived in Anatolia from approximately 1800 to 1100 BCE. In their “Ritual of Zuwi” the Hittites would hold a puppy up to a patient and say, “I hold it (the puppy) to him with the right hand saying ‘just as the puppy licks its own nine body parts’—and I call the person by name—‘in the same way let it lick up the illness in this one’s body parts.’ ” But, just as some other forms of ritual healing and purification involving dogs and other animals did not end well for the animal, the dogs and puppies frequently ended up as sacrifices in these ceremonies. Puppies, in particular, were understood to take on the illness, often believed to be an incarnation of evil, from the patient and would then be killed in order to get rid of the wickedness. As noted elsewhere, dogs were not always happy survivors at the temples: they were frequently sacrifices and forced emissaries to the underworld.

As is the case in the images of St. Lazarus, dogs are commonly pictured licking wounds. History reveals this longstanding tradition of trusting the saliva of dogs as a healing agent—and a powerful one at that. But there is mounting evidence that moves dogs beyond this symbolic role of caretaker. Recently scientists have in fact discovered healing properties in dog saliva. It contains antibacterial and, possibly, other properties that cause wounds to heal more quickly. While still a debated idea, and one that needs to be balanced with the possibility that there are also properties in dog saliva that could cause infection, it is an intriguing prospect and one that was obviously considered by people thousands of years ago as they opened their healing temples to the dogs. As ancient Armenian legends claimed, the dogs “lick the wounds of injured men and revive them.”

This association with dogs and healing is also present in the iconography, veneration, and practice connected to a Greek god that many people might still find familiar: Asklepios. While frequently portrayed with a snake, Asklepios—the longest enduring of the ancient gods of medicine and one who is still invoked by physicians (at least symbolically) into the modern period—was also closely associated with dogs. As his legend goes, Asklepios, the son of the god Apollo and a mortal woman, was yanked from his mother’s womb and then abandoned to the elements by his father. But Asklepios was saved, maybe by the intervention of the goddess of nature, through the tender care of a female sheepdog. The sheepdog nursed and protected the abandoned infant-god. Interestingly, in the legends from this particular area, Epidauros in Greece, which was the center of Asklepios’ cult, there is a mountain sanctuary located on Mount Kynortion, the “Mountain of the Rising Dog.” With this sacred location and story as background, from that point forward, dogs were associated with Asklepios’ imagery and his temples.

Temples to Asklepios are found throughout the Hellenistic world, and some of the healings at these temples are attributed directly to dogs: “A child was cured of a growth on his neck by the tongue of a dog. A blind boy received his sight the same way.” Not all instances of dogs assisting in healing at Asklepios’ temples were as benign, however. They would also play a role in diagnosing “strange illnesses.” In these cases, “a dog, through contact with an ill person, was thought to contract the disease, and was then killed and examined to determine its nature.” Reminiscent of the puppies who took on pollution and evil in the “Ritual of Zuwi,” these dogs of Asklepios were believed to absorb, literally, the illness of the human and then become the cure by being sacrificed.

Concepts of purity and pollution intersected in dogs, making their ambivalent role both powerful and vulnerable. Frequently, as was the case in rituals in Greece and Anatolia, to be healed was to be purified. And dogs, often puppies, were the cure, a deadly combination for the young canines. When explaining why a dog was sacrificed, Plutarch lays this out clearly:

Is it because this performance constitutes a rite of purification for the city? . . . Nearly all the Greeks used a dog as the sacrificial victim for ceremonies of purification; and some, at least, make use of it to this day. They bring forth for Hecate puppies along with other materials for purification, and rub round about with puppies such persons as are in need of cleansing. (Roman Questions, 68)

After thousands of years living side by side, ideas of healing, purification, and the underworld were all part of a complex package of symbolism piled onto dogs.


Excerpted from A Dog’s History of the World: Canines and the Domestication of Humans by Larua Hobgood-Oster © 2014 by Baylor University Press, Waco, Texas 76798-7363. All Rights Reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission in writing of Baylor University Press.