The research is in – dogs are really good for us

“Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”
– Roger Caras, wildlife photographer and animal preservationist

Krystal Simpson
Healthy Living

Growing up, my family always had a dog and I developed a profound appreciation and deep love for our canine companions. For the last eight years I’ve lived with an affectionate, 130-pound Newfoundland dog named Tessie and despite the piles of hair she leaves behind on the carpet, my children wouldn’t have it any other way. Our furry family members not only offer companionship and a friendly wagging tail when you walk in the door, research confirms what most dog owners already know – dogs are really good for us.

Having a dog can be beneficial in many ways.

Dogs have long been used in pet therapy and are best known for their work as guide dogs for the visually impaired. Through years of domestication, dogs have adapted well to their human masters and are innately aware of our behaviours and emotions. We share a share a social environment with them, and research has shown that dogs are sensitive to emotional cues in our voices. In pet therapy, dogs provide comfort to people of all ages, while helping to reduce anxiety, loneliness and stress. A study from the University of Missouri showed that petting a dog for just 15 minutes releases serotonin and oxytocin, known as the feel-good hormones, and can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Just mention the word “walk” and you’re bound to send a dog into a frenzied state of anticipation. That kind of enthusiasm is hard to ignore, which is likely why dog owners walk more than people who don’t own one. According to a Canadian study published in the Journal of Preventative Medicine, dog owners walk an average of 300 minutes per week compared to non-dog owners, who walk about 168 minutes per week. Most participants in the study cited the obligation to walk the dog as the motivating factor – in other words, even if you don’t feel like getting up off that couch, your dog will usually win out! The study concluded that getting a dog is a viable strategy to increase one’s level of physical activity.

The America Heart Association published a scientific statement in their Circulation journal after reviewing all the research on dog ownership and cardiovascular disease. Some noteworthy conclusions: dog owners exercise more, have lower blood pressure and are more likely to survive a heart attack. Therefore, dog ownership can offer a “reasonable reduction in cardiovascular disease”. The article also affirmed that dog ownership is associated with a lower incidence of obesity.

That affectionate bond people share with their dogs is also good for mental health and well-being, particularly for older adults. As we age, our circle of loved ones and friends gets smaller, and pets can provide much needed companionship for those who live alone. Dogs have that infectious vitality and lovable nature that can brighten someone’s day and give them a reason to get up in the morning. In a survey published last year in Advances in Aging Research, participants aged 65 and older stated that having a dog gave them a reason to leave the house every day and helped them stay in contact with people as they walked around their neighbourhood. Participants also stated they liked having an animal to care for and enjoyed petting, playing and even talking with the dog.

Of course, dog ownership comes with its fair share of responsibilities, which can be challenging as you get older. If you are thinking about getting a dog, here are a few things to consider:

  • Dogs can be expensive. Whether it’s their food, grooming, training or regular trips to the veterinarian, dogs cost money like anything else. Make sure you can accommodate those added expenses.
  • Different breeds have different needs and temperaments. When choosing a breed or rescue dog, consider just how active you want to be. Some breeds are very high energy and frisky, requiring a lot of exercise. If your dog was bred to complete some sort of canine job like retrieving, they will have a good deal of get up and go!
  • Dogs can pose a tripping hazard. Some dogs are always underfoot, following you all over the house and circling around you when they are hungry.

A person who would love the companionship of a dog without the responsibility of owning one, might like to consider volunteering at a local animal shelter. The Winnipeg Humane Society also has a foster parent program where you can temporarily foster a dog in need. For more information on that program, visit http://www.winnipeghumanesociety.ca/ways-to-help/foster/.

Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline, a community service of the Victoria General Hospital Foundation.

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