Studies show that dog walks, long touted as good for our dogs, are significantly good for us too. “Recent findings indicate that dog walkers are more likely to meet guidelines for adequate physical activity,” says Sandra McCune, Research Manager, Human-Animal Interaction Research Programme, WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition, UK. “Even modest dog walking increases of 90 minutes per week may substantially reduce new cases of conditions linked to sedentary lifestyles such as coronary artery disease or diabetes, resulting in significant healthcare savings.” With obesity rates alarmingly high, people benefit from a dog’s nudging them off the couch. “From a public health perspective, promoting dog walking is appealing due to the high proportion of dog-owners, the ease and low cost of dog walking, and the moderate-intensity physical activity involved,” McCune explains.
Dog walking also helps us age gracefully. “Older adults who walk dogs are shown to be significantly healthier than non-dog walkers,” says Rebecca A.Johnson, director, Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, College ofVeterinary Medicine, University of Missouri. Ownership isn’t required; even walking someone else's dog leads to health benefits. “Our recent study revealed that individuals in public housing who walked loaner dogs with a handler showed an average 14-pound weight loss,” Johnson says.
Our dogs are good for our hearts in more ways than one. “Some of the strongest evidence for the health benefits of pets comes from research on cardiovascular health and physiological arousal,” McCune says. “The presence of animals decreases stress, and decreasing stress has immediate, positive effects on heart rate and blood pressure.”
Additional findings link dog ownership to medical cost savings. “German, Australian and Chinese studies indicate that pet owners make fewer annual doctor visits, and the relationship remains statistically significant after controlling for other variables,” McCune says. Studies further indicate that the relationship between pet ownership and better health is causal, not just correlational. “It used to be argued that perhaps people who chose dog ownership were originally healthier,” Johnson explains. “One recent study, however, specifically demonstrated that people who didn't have dogs at first became healthier once owning a dog.”
As demographics shift and families become smaller, more children grow up without siblings. A recent research collaboration found that dogs particularly benefit youngest children or singletons. “Our dogs are stepping into the role of both the surrogate best friend and a sibling,” Johnson says. Research indicates that almost 75% of children confide in pets. In one recent UK study, children were asked to make a list of their friends and families, including any pets, teachers, or other important people. “The results found that children often ranked pets higher than many significant human relationships,” McCune says. “Dogs were ranked high as sources of comfort, providers of support in a frightening situation, and as playmates with whom to share special secrets.”
Dog ownership has also been shown to foster empathy in children. “Studies from China show that pet-owning single children are more willing to share and to care for others,” McCune says.
With shifting families and divorces, many children today experience stressful transitions. “Studies evidence that a dog’s unconditional love may anchor a child, helping them adjust to transitions such as divorce,” Johnson says.
Additionally, dogs may help children struggling with specific challenges. “Some studies, for example, now indicate that dog interactions may promote communication in children with autism,” says Peggy McCardle, Ph.D., MPH, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Development. Other studies suggest that children generally feel more secure reading to a pet.
Studies continue to explore dogs’ roles in reducing a child’s loneliness, mitigating childhood obesity, supporting positive social development, and easing the grieving process. “Examining these processes isn’t easy since many factors must be controlled to learn what actually causes certain behaviour changes,” McCardle explains. “Findings, however, already suggest dogs may keep children healthier by more than simply the increased exercise concurrent with dog ownership.”
People of all ages reap emotional health benefits from dog ownership. One study indicated stressed adult owners turn to their pets as attachment figures more than to family or close friends (with the one exception of romantic partners). “An accepting animal offers simple comfort after a day of complicated human problems,” Johnson says. “Even with a close family member or best friend, there's a conditionality operating that is absent in the human-dog relationship.”
Along with comfort, findings further confirm that dog relationships benefit our overall emotional health, reducing depression, anxiety, and loneliness. One study examined the neuro-mechanisms by which communication with dogs affects our well-being. “The dog’s gaze was found to increase the owner’s oxytocin levels, promoting relaxation and happiness,” Johnson explains. Interestingly, a similar positive oxytocin level response was found in dogs reacting to owners’ attention, suggesting a mutually beneficial relationship. “Further studies may confirm that humans and dogs have a common style of attachment, perhaps in part explaining our two species’ compatibility,” Johnson says.
Interaction with a dog engages four of our senses: sight, hearing, smell and touch. "When multiple senses are engaged in a positive manner, the part of our nervous system that is stimulated often slows down our heart and breathing rate, putting us in a better state of mind,” Johnson says. Few other daily encounters engage as many senses at one time. Our dogs are high-touch in a society of high-tech. “Interacting with our dogs gives us a hands-on break from a technological input, and a chance to engage with a sentient being that’s completely accepting,” Johnson explains.
Our dogs may also make us better employees. Findings on workplaces allowing dogs generally reveal a positive response, both from the individual and the collective group. “Preliminary work shows both a perception of a more positive work experience and an overall increase in productivity,” Johnson says.
Social capital, the expected collective benefit derived from people’s cooperation, is created when people interact, volunteer, become involved in community issues, or share useful skills or resources. “The benefits associated with higher levels of social capital include lower mortality rates, higher self-rated health, and better general health,” McCune says. Studies now confirm that our dogs help build social capital. “In a society with an increasing number of closed garage doors and fewer open front porches, dogs can facilitate interaction,” Johnson says. In short, our dogs get us involved. “Animals are powerful catalysts for positive social interaction, creating connections that transcend racial, cultural, physical, and socioeconomic differences,” McCune says.
Dogs also play a valuable role in the perceived safety of a neighbourhood. “An Australian study indicates that neighbourhoods were deemed both safe and friendly where people regularly walked dogs,” Johnson says. “This perception of safety may then contribute to higher home values.”
As research continues to reveal the positive consequences of the human-dog bond, forward-thinking people explore new ways to tap into the benefits. Some researchers, for example, are looking at the use of animals in schools as well as clinical settings. “Psychotherapists have observed that using dogs relaxes children, increasing their comfort talking about their troubles,” McCardle says. “Researchers are beginning to study these situations to document how and when they do work, for which children, and even why they seem to be beneficial.”
Innovators likewise look to incorporate dogs into the lives of maturing adults. The Tiger Place Pet Initiative in Missouri, for example, models a method for facilitating pet ownership among the elderly. “The retirement residence actively encourages pet ownership,” Johnson says. Pet assistants haul dog food bags, clean litter boxes, and administer pet medications if needed, and a veterinarian provides routine care in-house. “An endowment for animal care protects the dog’s well-being when the resident needs to travel, is hospitalized, or is otherwise unable to care for the dog,” Johnson explains.
A current study is underway at the University of Missouri exploring residential home seniors fostering shelter dogs. “Our hypothesis is that the seniors will demonstrate the same physical and emotional benefits from fostering as from ownership,” Johnson explains. “We are just scratching the surface of the positive emotional and physical health roles our dogs can serve.”
The day may be just around the corner when innovative health care providers prescribe a pooch, not a pill…
©Lynn M Hayner 2013