What to get your dog . . . and other holiday insights from UBC experts

As the holiday season approaches, we asked four UBC experts for their advice on gift-giving, having a sustainable Christmas and how to beat the winter blahs.

A dog’s Christmas

For many, Christmas gift-giving extends beyond the human members of the family. What, if anything, should you get your dog: an old-fashioned bone, or a rhinestone-studded designer collar?

Stanley Coren, a UBC professor of psychology and world-renowned expert on man’s best friend, says dogs understand gifts in two ways: the pleasure of the social attention they receive during the ritual, and the gift, if it brings them pleasure.

Coren, author of How Dogs Think: Understanding the Canine Mind, suggests that pleasing dogs is a no-brainer. His research has found a dog’s mind is roughly equivalent to that of a two or two-and-a-half year old human, and indicates that Fido may not care whether or not she gets the latest in doggy fashion.

“Anything pleasurable that we give them – even just a dog biscuit in the morning – might have the same status in their minds as that ‘special gift’ that we give them for Christmas,” he says.

The best gifts for most dogs are things that are edible, in part so the dog can make its own fun during holiday celebrations (and not interrupt the rest of the proceedings), he says.

The dog won’t feel left out if it doesn’t get a present, as long as it’s not the only one. “If other dogs in the room are getting gifts and they are not, they are apt to get annoyed and respond negatively,” Coren says.

Gift-giving and happiness

UBC researcher Lara Aknin studies happiness and spending choices. Her previous work led to a 2008 paper co-authored with UBC psychology professor Elizabeth Dunn that found individuals reported significantly greater happiness if they spent money “pro-socially” – that is on gifts for others or charitable donations – rather than spending on themselves.

Aknin suggests that gift-giving may have played an important evolutionary role. “Giving gifts may increase our happiness by facilitating and  strengthening our social ties,” she says.

“I don’t know what makes for a ‘perfect gift,’ but a gift that would make the gift-giver happier should involve spending time with the recipient.”

Shorter days make us sad

The holiday season also brings the shortest days of the year, with just eight hours of daylight as the winter solstice rolls around. The dark days are a prime cause of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression.

Dr. Raymond Lam, professor of psychiatry and head of the Division of Clinical Neuroscience at UBC, says studies show between two and three per cent of the general population has SAD. Another 10 to 15 per cent gets the “winter blahs,” troublesome symptoms that are not severe enough to warrant a diagnosis of clinical depression.

People with significant symptoms of winter depression (i.e., low mood, fatigue, oversleeping, overeating, concentration problems) should be checked out by their family doctor and/or a mental health professional, Lam says.

“People with milder symptoms of winter blahs can often feel better by staying active and spending more time outdoors during the winter, maybe by incorporating an outdoor walk into their daily schedule,” he says.

Light therapy is also helpful for people with SAD, and can also improve symptoms of winter blahs.

Natural vs. artificial trees

What’s better for the environment: a natural of artificial Christmas tree?

John Robinson, professor in the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, suggests there’s no clear-cut answer.

“It depends on where you get the real tree and how you dispose of it, or how long you keep the artificial tree,” he says.

Stefan Storey, a researcher who works with Robinson, points to a Quebec study that considered artificial versus natural trees.

“It’s a close call, but if you keep your artificial tree for only six years of use, a natural tree comes out as a winner in terms of CO2 production (eight kilograms versus 3.1 kg),” he says.

However, the study authors make it very clear that this is a small impact compared to the impacts of owning and running a car.

“If your annual journey to pick up the natural tree involves a drive that’s about 16 kilometres or more, the artificial tree starts to fare well,” Storey says.

Robinson recommends Granville magazine and the David Suzuki Foundation’s website as an excellent source of information on sustainable products and services that can be used to choose more sustainable presents.