There’s a reason dogs are called man’s best friend: not only do they offer unparalleled companionship, but a growing body of research shows they also boost our health. Numerous studies suggest that owning a dog can prompt you to be more physically active—have leash, will walk. In addition, dogs can reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness in people and help calm jagged nerves: several studies show that petting a dog can reduce blood pressure and heart rate in humans (while having a salutary effect on the dog as well). In this Harvard Special Health Report, we explore these studies.
As dog owners ourselves, we can attest to the psychological and physical benefits of having a dog in your life. But it’s also important to be aware of your effect on your dog. People who are overweight and sedentary tend to have dogs that are overweight and sedentary. In fact, obesity has reached epidemic proportions in the canine community, affecting 56% of dogs, just as it has for humans. So if you have an unhealthy, overweight dog, that may be a red flag that you’re unhealthy yourself. In this report, we recommend some healthy lifestyle changes for both you and your dog to further boost the benefits we described above. If the two of you already exercise together, we suggest some ways to expand your activities.
If you don’t own a dog but would like to adopt one, we guide you in choosing a companion that will suit your lifestyle. We also cover the role of service dogs in the lives of humans and ways to benefit from contact with canines even if you don’t own a dog yourself. And we’ve created a special section on optimal dog nutrition, plus a chapter on exercise, so you know exactly what your dog needs to stay healthy and fit.
While dogs have much to offer us and we to them, we don’t recommend adopting a dog unless you have the time and energy to attend to your companion’s nutritional, physical, emotional, and social needs. If you’re working 15-hour days on a regular basis and you can’t take your dog with you to your workplace, then you don’t have the time to be a responsible and loving dog parent. It’s important that we respect dogs as sentient beings that are capable of fear, anxiety, and sadness as well as joy and contentedness, and that need love and attention. Although dogs are wonderful motivators for getting moving, they are not just a means to a healthier end. Adopting a dog is a commitment that will last for many years, and you must be ready and willing to take on that responsibility. If you do, it’s likely you will be richly rewarded with one of the most satisfying, loving, and active relationships you’ll ever experience.
Elizabeth Pegg Frates, M.D.
Lisa Moses, V.M.D.
Our dogs, ourselves
The writer Anatole France stated the joy of dog ownership perfectly when he wrote, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened.” Certainly most dog owners today would agree. But the bond between people and dogs appears to run both ways. Our reciprocal relationship is simple and based on unconditional love, affection, fun, and joy. No wonder Americans own more than 78 million dogs. As many as 46% of U.S. households include a dog—and for most dog owners, the responsibilities and costs of owning a dog are minimal compared with the tremendous benefits the animals offer.
Our relationship with dogs dates back to the Stone Age, anywhere from 14,000 to 30,000 years ago, when dogs began to evolve from wolves. There are differing theories about how the process of domestication and adoption began. It may have been the case that wolves discovered cast-off food scraps from human encampments and so began frequenting them. Or it may have been that people decided to adopt orphaned wolf pups they encountered while hunting. Either way, the calmest and friendliest of wolves were soon taken into human communities, most probably as social companions and to alert humans to predators.
Around 5,000 years ago, distinct breeds such as the mastiff began to emerge, though active breeding only began about 400 years ago. Then in the 19th century, humans began to realize they could breed dogs for selected qualities and for their skill at performing specific functions such as herding sheep, hunting rats and other vermin, tracking prey, retrieving downed fowl, pulling sleds, and guarding encampments. Eventually, modern dog breeds, and even designer mixes such as Labradoodles and cockapoos, were created.
Living so closely with families, dogs have evolved to be acutely attuned to human beings and their behaviors. Research suggests that dogs bond with humans in much the same way that infants bond with their parents, and that this connection develops very quickly. Dogs are so in sync with humans that they can follow when a human points to hidden food, or even just gazes in the direction of a hidden treat, and they can do this task better than chimpanzees—our closest relatives—and wolves that have been raised by humans. They are also able to understand many human words, gestures, inflections, and emotions.
Many people talk about the profound connection between dogs and people—an enduring and unconditional love unique in the animal kingdom. Devout dog owners consider themselves “dog parents” and treat their dogs as a part of the family. They celebrate their pets’ birthdays and hang Christmas stockings for them, which they fill with treats and toys. They pamper them with cushy beds and pillows and bling them out with rhinestone-encrusted collars. They have them groomed and swathe them in designer clothes, write them into their wills, and bury them in pet cemeteries.
Likewise, the affinity of dogs for humans is so strong that it appears that dogs may prefer the company of people over other dogs. In an Ohio State University study where dogs were given the choice of being with a researcher or with other dogs, they chose the human. Many humans would no doubt make the same choice—to be with their dogs rather than other people. Talk to dog owners and you’ll repeatedly hear how loving, loyal, and devoted their dogs are, how their canine companions are always happy to see the owners, never talk back, and offer abiding love and affection.
Not all dog owners are devoted guardians, however. On the other side of the coin are the dog owners who care little for their pets, abusing and abandoning them, allowing them to procreate without restriction, and in some cases even making them fight other dogs. This darker side of dog ownership is behind the high rate of canine euthanasia and the large numbers of rescue organizations and shelters in this country (see “Dog stats”).
Source: American Humane Association’s U.S. Pet (Dog and Cat) Population Fact Sheet.
Benefits of dog ownership
There are many ways in which dogs enrich our lives and contribute to healthier lifestyles.
Filling the need for companionship. For humans, dogs fulfill a basic need for connection, a key component of both happiness and healthy aging. Two large, long-term studies (one conducted at Harvard University and the other at the California-based Longevity Project) that followed groups of Americans from childhood to old age showed that social connection can stave off illness and add years to life. Basically, these studies found that the happier and more engaged we are in life and with others—both people and animals—the longer and better we’ll live. A dog provides a form of social support; in fact, many dog owners talk to their dogs as if they were people. And since dogs rely on people to feed and shelter them, dogs make you feel wanted and give you a sense of purpose you may not find elsewhere in your life.
Boosting your activity level. Numerous studies have shown that having a dog leads to a more active lifestyle and that dog owners are more likely to achieve recommended exercise levels than non-owners. Dogs, of course, need to be walked, which offers an incentive for getting outside and walking yourself, even for short spurts.
Helping you be calmer, more mindful, and more present in your life. Ever watch a dog on a walk? One minute she’s sniffing a patch of grass, the next wagging her tail at an approaching stranger, and the next rolling in the grass. Dogs epitomize the joyful act of being in the present moment and can help you be more mindful as well. Walking with your dog puts you more in touch with nature and helps you focus on the here and now, pushing worries away. Dogs also tend to alter our behavior, helping us to be calmer and less stressed, and to speak more slowly and softly.
Making kids more active, more secure, and more responsible. Research shows that kids with pets tend to be more active and that they feel more secure and less lonely. Dogs provide a sense of safety, protection, and love, and in return teach children valuable lessons about responsible behavior. A pet is often a child’s first friend—serving as a morale booster when something is going wrong at school or quarrels with parents loom. Animals are constant, nonjudgmental companions and loyal allies. In addition, playing a part in an animal’s life helps kids feel important, which is a key step toward a positive self-image. Children can care for dogs by helping feed them, playing fetch with them in the yard, or training them to sit, stay, or roll over. Dogs provide an opportunity for children to express their loving and nurturing instincts, perhaps mimicking the love they are receiving from their own parents.
Improving the lives of the elderly. Having a pet to care for helps seniors fill the long hours of the day that used to be devoted to family responsibilities and work. It gives them a reason to get out of bed and adds structure to their day, centering around pet meal times and walking schedules. And it gives them a reciprocal relationship that boosts their health, offering a meaningful emotional connection to another living being. As they tend to their animal companions, seniors are reminded to take care of themselves. Dogs can listen to the same stories repeatedly and still wag their tails with delight while hearing the voices of their owners.
Making you more social and less isolated. Dogs also provide the opportunity to socialize with people every day, especially if you go to a dog park, walk your dog in a neighborhood, or bring your dog with you on errands. Other people who are walking outside and doing errands are drawn to dogs, and so opportunities for conversations and connections multiply. (In some communities, businesses are so keen on dogs that they put out water bowls or offer dog treats.)
Having a dog makes you more attractive and approachable to others, as dogs often act as social lubricants, inviting petting and conversation. One study found that close to 70% of walks that involved dogs led to at least one spoken interaction between the dog owner and a stranger. And because having a dog also requires that you go out in the world on a regular basis, dog owners tend to be less isolated than non-owners, especially as they age.
What if you can’t own a dog?
Some people don’t have the time, the space, the desire, the physical stamina, or the extra income to support a dog. They may live in a small apartment that doesn’t allow dogs. They may be elderly and too frail to walk a dog several times a day. They may not feel up to the 10- to 15-year commitment of adopting a dog. They may not have enough money to feed a dog and pay for veterinary care.
The good news is that you don’t need to own a dog to benefit from canine companionship. If you are too ill or frail to care for a dog, arrange for a therapy dog visit on a regular basis. You can find one through a local therapy dog group (see “Resources”). At the very least, you can go to the dog park to enjoy watching dogs at play.
If you can take on a little more responsibility, try pet sitting, or offer to walk a dog for a friend or neighbor. Volunteer your dog-walking services at a shelter. You can also serve as a foster parent for a rescue dog waiting to be placed or foster a puppy that is being considered for a life as a service animal (typically, you keep these animals for about a year and a half before they are ready for training). There are myriad ways to incorporate the joys of interacting with a dog into your life without having to take one home with you on a permanent basis. Not only do you reap the benefits, you also do a good deed at the same time, since the dogs also benefit from these interactions.
A case in point: a study by the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine’s Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction (ReCHAI) found that encouraging public housing residents to walk certified therapy dogs led to weight loss. Twenty-six people were recruited for the Walking for Healthy Hearts project, which had them walk a dog, accompanied by a handler, three days a week for 10 minutes, gradually working up to five days a week for 20 minutes. Thirteen people signed up for a 50-week program and lost an average of 14.4 pounds over a year without changing their diets. Another 13 participants signed up for a 26-week period and lost an average of 5 pounds over six months. Subjects were very adherent to the exercise regimen (72% stuck with the schedule in the 50-week group, and 52% stuck with it in the 26-week group), mostly because they felt that the dogs “need[ed] us to walk them.” Participants also said that the dogs made walking a pleasant activity.
Another ReCHAI study, dubbed Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound, found that weekly walks on a nature trail with a shelter dog prompted adults and children to exercise in other ways the rest of the week. Additional benefits of the interaction: people became more aware of dogs available for adoption, and the dogs became more adoptable, thanks to the socialization, exercise, and practice walking on a leash.
The effects of spending time with dogs can be particularly profound for older adults, who may feel isolated. In a 12-week walking study of 35 older adults who were living in an assisted living facility, also conducted by ReCHAI, those who chose to walk with a dog from a local animal shelter were more likely to stick with their walking program than those who chose a friend or spouse as a walking partner. (The humans sometimes discouraged one another from walking—something a dog would rarely do!) In addition, the older adults who walked with a dog improved their walking speed by 28% compared with just 4% among those who walked with another person. This suggests that the seniors’ walking ability and balance both improved, as did their walking confidence.
Rebecca Johnson, director of ReCHAI, noted in a press release, “Health care providers are quick to give walkers and canes to aging individuals to help them with their physical needs, but [eldercare facilities] make it difficult for elderly individuals to keep their pets, key facilitators of emotional health.” This study shows that as the elderly population in America grows, the role of companion animals needs to be explored as a means of improving the health and well-being of older persons.
In our society, dogs often serve important functions that enhance health in special ways: there are approximately 20,000 service dogs in the United States, about half of whom are guide dogs for the blind. Other service dogs assist the hearing impaired, people with epilepsy, and those who are otherwise disabled. These dogs make it possible for people with physical limitations to perform activities of daily living and to get out in the world, enhancing their social connections. They protect their owners’ lives when navigating busy streets and public transit. Service dogs also safeguard public health in life-and-death situations by working in the military, assisting with search and rescue operations, and sniffing for explosives and drugs.
Guide dogs, typically black or yellow Labrador retrievers, golden retrievers, German shepherds, and standard poodles, are available to people who are legally blind or visually impaired through a variety of nonprofit organizations around the United States (see “Organizations that offer guide dogs”). The dogs are specially bred and trained at a cost of approximately $50,000 per animal, but are provided to qualifying recipients free of charge or for a nominal fee. Most of these animals work as guide dogs for seven to eight years and then are retired as pets or returned to the nonprofit organization.
Starting at about 18 months of age, prospective guide dogs undergo several months of intensive training with a sighted instructor. For instance, they’re taught to work with a harness on and obey basic commands such as “forward,” “right,” and “left.” Guide dogs are also taught to find and follow a clear path, avoid obstacles, and stop at curbs. When crossing streets, dogs are taught to rely on their owners to say when to cross; blind individuals judge when it’s safe to cross by traffic sounds, since they can’t see traffic lights. However, dogs are also taught “intelligent disobedience,” and will not carry out commands unless they believe the coast is clear.
Organizations that offer guide dogs
Guide Dog Foundation
Guide Dogs for the Blind
Guide Dogs of America
Guiding Eyes for the Blind
The Seeing Eye
2020 Vision Quest
A dog that passes muster during the training phase is matched with a blind person, and the pair train together for several weeks. The blind person is taught how to work with and care for the guide dog.
If you encounter a person with a guide dog, don’t treat the dog like a pet. Always ask if you can greet, touch, or feed the dog before doing so. When on duty, guide dogs are taught to focus completely on their handlers and their needs. By distracting them, you may confuse the dog and the handler. If you believe a blind person needs assistance, always ask first whether he or she requires help; never give the dog commands or attempt to take its harness from the owner. Finally, if you’re walking with a blind person who has a guide dog, walk on the owner’s right side and slightly behind the pair.
Other canines work as animal-assisted therapy dogs and are trained to provide companionship and comfort to people in hospitals—to distract them from pain and worry about their illness, for instance, and to relieve boredom and boost their mood.
There is also evidence that dog visits benefit the elderly and disabled living in homes and nursing facilities, improving their mood and helping them to feel less lonely and apathetic and more engaged in life. Many elderly people report looking forward to these visits. Studies of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia associate dog therapy visits with a decrease in feelings of anxiety, sadness, agitation, and aggression, and an increase in pleasurable emotions and alertness.
Randy’s story: A man, a dog—and 48 peaks to climb
Randy Pierce, 47, and his friend Quinn are legendary in New Hampshire hiking circles for having climbed all 48 of the state’s 4,000-plus-foot peaks in a single winter, a feat accomplished by only 50 people before them. But the feat was all the more impressive because Randy is blind and Quinn was his guide dog.
Randy had played many sports and climbed mountains as a youth, but after losing his vision in 1989 at age 22, he had become inactive. In fact, when he was matched with Quinn in 2006 by Guiding Eyes for the Blind, a nonprofit group that trains guide dogs, he was recovering from a bout with the same devastating neurological disease that had blinded him. A new attack had forced him into a wheelchair, and he was just becoming strong enough to walk again with a cane.
Within a year of being paired up, Randy noticed that he was getting around better and had less need for his cane, and he began to expand his horizons. “Quinn loved to walk and I loved to walk,” Randy recalls, “and Nashua has a wonderful park system surrounded by small mountains, so I decided we would try one of the trails.” Their first forays into the wild were usually in the company of others, but soon they were hiking on their own. Quinn, who had been taught to evaluate situations that might prove challenging for a blind person, quickly learned to alert Randy to overhanging branches, rocky terrain, streams, and other obstructions by stopping and refusing to move until Randy acknowledged and negotiated the obstacle. “We got faster the more we learned, and it was fun for both of us,” says Randy, adding that “guide dogs aren’t taught to hike mountains, so the fact that Quinn could lead me on trails was a credit to his ability to learn and to his intelligence.” It was also a testament to Quinn’s devotion to Randy and helping him navigate the world.
Eventually, the two climbed the 48 peaks twice in a single year—once in summer and once in winter. (Winter is actually an easier season for blind people to climb, as the terrain is smoother.) This included the treacherously steep and cold peak of Mount Washington, the highest mountain in the Northeast. Beyond guiding him through the world, Quinn made Randy more approachable to people he met. “People are often uncomfortable and uncertain about how to proceed when they meet a blind person, and the presence of the dog helped bridge that gap,” he says. “Quinn helped me connect with other people in a way my cane never did.”
Sadly, Randy lost “the mighty Quinn” to bone cancer in January 2014. His grief was as deep as it had been when his first guide dog died in 2005, but he also celebrated all that Quinn brought to his life in the few years they were together. “I miss him for his companionship far more than I miss him as my guide,” he says. “I was with him 24/7, spending more time with him than I did with any human being.” While no dog could replace Quinn, Randy was lucky enough to be paired with a new guide dog, Autumn, a 60-pound female black and tan Labrador retriever, in March 2014. “I’ve been told that I’m a tough match because I am very active—I hike, I do hundreds of presentations a year for my foundation, 2020 Vision Quest, and I go to a lot of public events,” says Randy. “That’s a challenge for finding the right dog, but Autumn is a spitfire with plenty of speed, a passion for working, and a love for the snow.”
Among abused or neglected children, therapy dogs have been noted to help reduce anxiety, depression, anger, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and sexual concerns. Some child therapists have dogs they bring to their offices or schools for this purpose. Children with mental or developmental disorders can also benefit: one study of children with special educational needs showed that they were less likely to act out and become stressed when in the presence of a therapy dog; other research suggests that dogs may help children with autism interact and communicate more with others, reduce stress, and decrease problem behaviors.
Many service associations have been created to meet the need for animal-assisted therapy. One such group is 4 Paws for Ability, an Ohio-based nonprofit dedicated to raising and training service dogs for children with Down syndrome, autism, fetal alcohol syndrome, brain damage, cerebral palsy, spina bifida, epilepsy, and other illnesses. The dogs may be trained to open doors, turn lights on and off, alert caregivers to an oncoming seizure, or keep track of children who have a penchant for wandering off. Most of all, the dogs offer gentle companionship to vulnerable, lonely, sick children. In a neat twist, the actual training of the dogs also provides a service: 4 Paws for Ability places some of its dogs with prisoners for their initial obedience training and socialization, providing inmates with a purpose and the opportunity to connect with animals in loving relationships.
Another program, Warrior Canine Connection, pairs specially trained golden or Labrador retrievers with disabled veterans who need assistance and companionship. But it goes a step beyond that. In fact, the dogs are often trained by ex-service members—called “warrior trainers”—who may be suffering from PTSD or brain injuries related to their wartime service. These veterans are prone to isolating themselves from society because of their anxieties and injuries, and the task of training the dogs helps them become comfortable in the world again. As with the inmates who train dogs for 4 Paws for Ability, this task helps veterans connect emotionally with animals in a safe and loving way, in the hopes that the process will translate into improved relationships with other people.
How dogs make us healthier
If you’re looking for a role model for a healthy lifestyle, look no further than your dog. Dogs naturally engage in healthy behaviors. They crave exercise and get excited by it. They sleep well and rest often. They love deeply and affectionately. We all know that these are positive behaviors, but putting them into practice in our own lives can prove difficult. The beauty of having dogs is that they subtly encourage us to want to live healthier—no nagging necessary.
The benefits include not just increased exercise, but also reductions in weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol. Kids who have dogs become less likely to develop allergies and asthma. Stress levels go down. The psychological boost from your dog can even encourage other positive lifestyle changes. In one study comparing 536 dog owners with 380 non-owners, the dog owners were not only more likely to have healthier weights and to be more physically active, they were also significantly less likely to have chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, and depression.
Regular exercise is the closest thing that exists to an all-purpose tonic for good health. It lowers the risks for serious diseases, from heart disease and type 2 diabetes to depression. The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommend 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week—or 30 minutes five days a week. Unfortunately, most Americans fall woefully short of these goals, with only 20% of U.S. adults meeting the government’s recommendations for aerobic and muscle-strengthening exercise.
Enter the dog. Dogs are perfect exercise buddies. Whether we like it or not, they will encourage us to go for a walk, be it raining, snowing, sleeting, or hailing outside. Their attitude toward activity can be contagious and uplifting: watching a dog bound joyfully across a nature trail, leap into a lake to fetch a stick, or dig into the snow to retrieve a ball can put a new spin on your attitude about exercising.
Of the dozen or so studies published so far on the topic of people, pets, and exercise, most find that people who own dogs are more active than those who don’t. For instance, the Neighborhood Quality of Life Study, which followed 2,199 people ages 20 to 65 living in Seattle and Baltimore, found that dog walkers achieved recommended physical activity levels more often than non-owners and were less likely to be obese. (Likewise, dogs were less likely to have weight issues if they were walked regularly.) Another study found that women, in particular, were more likely to walk if they had a companion—such as a dog—perhaps because they felt safer about walking alone.
Dog ownership can even encourage physical activity among people who traditionally get less exercise. The American Heart Association notes that walking with a dog may lessen an obese person’s feelings of embarrassment about his or her appearance and ability to walk, thus removing a commonly cited barrier to more exercise.
Dog ownership and dog walking can also set a good example for children, prompting them to adopt more physical activity. An Australian study found that young girls in families that owned dogs got 29 minutes more activity a day than girls who didn’t own dogs.
Unfortunately, many of these studies also have found that a quarter to a half of dog owners don’t actually walk their dogs, missing out on an important opportunity for exercise (see “Dog owners who don’t walk their dogs!”). You reap the benefits only if you actually get out and move.
Dog owners who don’t walk their dogs!
If you want the benefits of exercising with your dog, you actually have to walk the dog. Yet most dog-walking studies show that anywhere from one-third to three-quarters of dog owners don’t do that on a regular basis. For instance, while a 2013 Australian survey found that 63% of 1,219 study subjects had a dog, only 22% reported walking the dog daily. Likewise, a Johns Hopkins study of 394 older dog owners found only 36% walked their dogs at least three times a week.
Why don’t dog owners take advantage of the opportunity to be more active with their canine companions? Here are some possible reasons:
A lack of understanding of a dog’s need for exercise might also be holding the dog owner back. One study of 58 inactive dog owners found that informing people of their dogs’ exercise needs, the benefits of exercise for dogs, the amount and types of exercise that are best for different breeds and ages, and tips on exercising with a dog led to increased activity levels over 12 weeks.
So no excuses: it’s time to get started on a physical activity regimen that could benefit both you and your dog.
While studies have not specifically linked dog walking to the many benefits of exercise in general, one benefit is clear, and that’s weight loss.
The seminal study in this area of research was the People and Pets Exercising Together (PPET) study, conducted by an obesity specialist at the Wellness Institute at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. The one-year trial was designed to evaluate whether having a dog to exercise with could increase the amount of physical activity people got, as well as the amount of weight they lost. It consisted of 36 pairs of obese people and obese dogs and 56 obese people who exercised without pets. All of the human participants received counseling about diet and exercise, and the dogs received a calorie-controlled prescription diet. The people who were exercising with their dogs also met with a veterinarian, who gave them tips on playtime activities, dog-friendly local parks, pet toys, and safety.
At one year, slightly more of the people with pets were still exercising—61%—compared with 58% of the participants without pets. But the remaining exercisers in both groups were a lot more active than they had been at the start of the study—the people-dog pairs about 3.9 hours a week, and the solo exercisers about 3.5 hours a week. (The Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommend at least 2.5 hours.) Both groups lost about the same amount of weight: somewhere in the range of 11 pounds to 15 pounds. The dogs also lost about 15% of their total body weight, which amounted to an average of about 12 pounds. All of the participants cited walking as their preferred physical activity.
Although the weight loss wasn’t more impressive for people walking with pets, the researchers did observe that the dogs served as social companions and supporters for the participants’ weight-loss effort, a role similar to the one that other humans can fill for those trying to lose weight. The difference was that the dog support was always positive, while the human support could be positive (friends, family, and coworkers could act as cheerleaders, helpers, and walking companions) or negative (they could be bad influences or saboteurs, or might be inconsistent in their support). One participant in the study noted that her dog, Gresham, gave her tremendous incentive to be active: “[She] sought me out to walk every day. By 1:00, she started to pester me and became very aggressive until we walked (even on hot and rainy days).”
Surprisingly, the PPET researchers found that the study participants were much more focused on their dogs than on themselves during regular meetings that were held during the study period: people would trade stories about how their dog’s weight loss was allowing the animal to run up stairs again or how enthusiastic their dog was about going for a walk, even bringing a leash to the participant in a not-so-subtle inducement. One participant had an obvious sense of accomplishment—which the researchers termed “parental pride”—as a result of improving her dog’s health: “Knowing I could do something good for my dog [by walking every day] was a motivating factor. She looks fabulous,” the woman said.
Other studies have shown similar results. As noted earlier, the ReCHAI study conducted in Missouri found that when public housing residents were encouraged to walk certified therapy dogs for up to 20 minutes five days a week for six months or a year, they lost 5 pounds and 14.4 pounds, respectively, without changing their diets. Most weight-loss programs and anti-obesity drug trials can’t boast those kinds of results!
A survey about exercise sent to 1,000 dog owners conducted by dog food manufacturer Mars Petcare found that 39% believed that making sure their dog got walked helped them to be more active themselves. Over half of pet owners also said their pets were good company while exercising, and that they would prefer to walk with a dog than walk alone. Another Mars Petcare survey found that people who got a dog walked 30 minutes more a week than they did before they had a dog.
Among the most exciting findings about dogs and people is a growing body of evidence showing multiple benefits for heart health. The American Heart Association (AHA) has reviewed the data about people and their pets (including many dog studies) and, in 2013, issued a scientific statement, concluding that pet ownership is probably associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. Though the AHA declined to draw a definite connection, it went so far as to say that pet ownership is a reasonable strategy for reducing the risk of heart disease (though it cautions that pets should not be adopted for the primary purpose of reducing heart disease risk—and dogs certainly shouldn’t be adopted if you don’t plan to walk or otherwise engage in physical activity with them on a regular basis).
The organization was hesitant to draw a definitive link because most of the evidence comes from nonrandomized studies rather than rigorous randomized, blinded clinical trials (the gold standard of clinical research, yielding the highest-quality and least-biased results). In addition, the studies that have been conducted vary so greatly in quality, populations, types of pets, and human-pet interactions that they are difficult to compare. Hence, more research is needed.
In multiple studies, dog owners have been shown to have lower blood pressure than non-owners—probably because their pets have a calming effect on them and because they get more exercise. That’s welcome news, since one in three Americans has high blood pressure (hypertension). Because high blood pressure has no symptoms or warning signs, many people don’t even know they have it, so the condition has earned the nickname “the silent killer” for its role in increasing strokes, heart attacks, and kidney damage.
In most of the studies, dog ownership seems to cause the greatest reductions in systolic pressure—the top number in your blood pressure reading. In one study, systolic pressure was 7 mm Hg lower in older pet owners than in non-owners. In a few studies, diastolic pressure (the lower number) was also affected.
One study actually tested dog ownership as a treatment for high blood pressure: 30 people with borderline hypertension were assigned randomly to either adopt a dog from a shelter or defer adoption to a later date. Blood pressure was similar in both groups at the start of the study, but over five months, systolic blood pressure declined significantly in the dog-adoption group. Later, it also declined for the deferred-adoption participants after they took their dogs home.
The power of touch appears to be a major component of this “pet effect.” Several studies show that blood pressure goes down when a person pets a dog—again, because of the calming effect.
Cholesterol and triglycerides
Lower cholesterol and triglyceride levels are another potential health impact, according to limited evidence, though the reasons for this are not clear. In the largest study focusing on this question, 5,741 men and women were screened at a free clinic in Australia. Male dog owners were found to have lower total cholesterol levels (201 mg/dL, versus 206 mg/dL) and triglyceride levels (108 mg/dL, versus 225 mg/dL) than men who did not own dogs. Female dog owners over age 40 had lower triglyceride levels than women who did not own dogs. The positive effects on cardiovascular risk factors weren’t explainable by diet, smoking, or body mass index (BMI)—pet owners in this study actually ate more meat and take-out food but had similar BMIs and smoking habits as people who did not own pets.
With their calming effect on humans, dogs appear to help people reduce their stress levels. Perhaps that’s why other research suggests that people with dogs have less cardiovascular reactivity when they are mentally stressed. Having less cardiovascular reactivity means that their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly, thus stressing their bodies less. Still other data demonstrate improved survival rates after heart attack among dog owners compared with non-owners.
Reduced asthma and allergies in kids
While the data are inconsistent, most allergists now say exposure from infancy onward to a dog can reduce the likelihood that even allergy-prone kids will develop problems. In one study, researchers tested the blood of infants immediately after birth and at one year, looking for signs of allergic reactions. Babies who lived in homes that contained dogs were less likely to show signs of pet allergies—19% versus 33% for those without pets. They also were less prone to atopic dermatitis (eczema), which is often one of the first signs of an allergic predisposition, and they showed signs of more robust immune system activation. Another study of allergy-prone children who were followed from birth to age 4 found that those who had a dog in the house were less likely to develop eczema than those who weren’t exposed regularly to dogs. Ironically, the protection against eczema was strongest for children who were actually allergic to dogs.
A review of studies conducted between 2000 and 2009 agreed with those conclusions, but stated, “As the evidence of the effects of pet keeping on subsequent development of asthma or allergic diseases presented in this review [is] not overwhelmingly strong, the decision of whether to keep a cat or dog in the family should be based on arguments other than the concern of developing asthma and allergy.”
For most people, dog ownership confers an abundance of psychological benefits, helping to prevent everything from loneliness to anxiety and depression. Psychological studies have found that college-age adults were more likely to turn to their dogs for comfort than to their parents or siblings when they felt stressed, while other adults were able to shake off rejection just as well if they thought about their pet versus their best friend. Female dog owners were able to more successfully perform a cognitive task when with their dog versus a close friend. And people felt more secure in their relationships with their pets than in their romantic relationships.
Among older adults, dog ownership confers a significant effect of well-being; in a yearlong Canadian study, it even slightly improved seniors’ ability to perform activities of daily living, such as dressing and feeding themselves.
Interacting with a dog is calming for humans (and for dogs, for that matter), leading to less release of the stress hormone cortisol, and, as previously noted, lowering stress-related increases in heart rate and blood pressure. Many people also report feeling less fear and anxiety when they pet a dog, and one study found that dog owners laugh more often while observing their pet than do cat owners and people who don’t own dogs. Some even say dogs can help them through grief (see “Connie’s story: Grieving together and moving on”). These positive feelings may result from the release of oxytocin, a powerful hormone and brain chemical secreted by the pituitary gland during social bonding activities, and most notably when a mother nurses an infant. One study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior found that owners’ levels of this “bonding hormone” increased when their dogs gazed at them lovingly.
Connie’s story: Grieving together and moving on
When Connie Thanasoulis-Cerrachio, age 51, lost both of her parents to lung cancer within a couple of months of one another, the last thing she wanted was to adopt their 135-pound American mastiff, Sophie. Both Connie and her husband, Ron, had busy careers, and they didn’t know how they would care for her.
Connie, a career coach and corporate trainer living on Staten Island, N.Y., searched diligently for a new family for the dog, but because Sophie was so big and didn’t get along well with other animals, the search was fruitless. She also found herself quickly bonding with the gentle giantess of a dog, who was as traumatized by the deaths of Connie’s parents as Connie was herself. “Sophie had been abandoned by her first owners. Then she came to my parents’ house and lost them one after the other,” Connie recalls. “She wasn’t used to being alone and she didn’t understand what was happening, so at first she would follow me all around the house. Sometimes she would hear me crying and begin to whimper, and we’d end up grieving together.” After a couple of months, Connie told Ron she was keeping the dog, and he acquiesced.
Soon, Connie and Sophie fell into a regular pattern. The big dog would play with her toys and snore on a couch in Connie’s office while she worked from home. They took short walks around the block—as much activity as Sophie could handle, since she was overweight and suffering from joint pain. On days when Connie needed to see clients outside the house, her neighbor would care for the dog.
Both of them continued to grieve, taking her parents’ deaths very hard. But one day, Connie realized that she and Sophie needed to stop crying for their loss. “I looked over at her and she looked back and let out this little whimper. I said to her, ‘If you stop crying, I’ll stop crying.’ She wagged her tail and from then on, we both began to move on with life.”
Today, four years later, Connie and Ron can’t do enough for seven-year-old Sophie. “Working from home with her in the room is such a treat,” says Connie. “She’s the best office companion—she’s always happy, always sweet, and very low maintenance.” Ron, for his part, loves to lie on the floor with Sophie and play with her after a day’s work, and together they go for family walks to a nearby beach. They’ve even succeeded in putting Sophie on a healthier diet consisting of lower-calorie dog food and healthy treats such as apples, carrots, and sweet potatoes. (This was a big change from Sophie’s previous diet, which in large part consisted of buttered bagels and candy.) As a result of the increased activity and improved diet, Sophie and Connie have each lost about 30 pounds since the mastiff came to live with the Cerrachios.
Although Connie and Ron have no children, they feel like a family with Sophie in the house. “Not being able to have children was tough for me, and I never thought a dog could substitute for a child, but Sophie does,” says Connie. “I feel like I am here to protect my dog, this beautiful soul who brings me so much love and joy.”
Another way dogs benefit people psychologically is by adding structure and routine to the day, which can improve well-being, especially among people with chronic health conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome, migraine, arthritis, and diabetes. The presence of an animal that requires care can turn a sick person’s focus outward and away from their symptoms and worries. There appears to be a significant “placebo effect” related to owning a pet, as well—many people perceive that their quality of life and well-being are improved by the presence of their animal companion, which may in and of itself impart some psychological benefit.
For children, owning a pet may lead to stronger social relationships and connections to their community, according to a Tufts University study. In particular, this research found that kids who were emotionally attached to their pet tended to be better able to attach to others, have empathy, feel self-assured, and thrive in social settings.
Perhaps one of the greatest psychological benefits of interacting with a dog is the opportunity it provides to be more mindful—to purposely focus your attention on the present moment. Mindfulness has garnered tremendous interest over the past decade because of research indicating the practice reduces stress and enhances health.
Mindfulness is the opposite of multitasking. It has its roots in Buddhist practices and teaches us to live each moment as it unfolds but without judging what we are feeling and perceiving. It involves erasing the past and future from your mind. The practice is a component of many relaxation techniques, including yoga, deep breathing, tai chi, massage, reflexology, journaling, and prayer. You can also easily use the technique to reduce stress while walking with a dog. In fact, let the dog show you how. Notice how joyously present she is when walking out in the world: her head is up, her tail is wagging, she’s alert and taking it all in. She is open to new sights, smells, sounds, people, and animals. Each walk is viewed as an adventure.
Here’s how to cultivate that mindset for yourself:
As you start your walk, take a moment to bring your attention to the sensations in your body.
Breathe in through your nose. Let your abdomen expand fully. Then breathe out through your mouth. Notice the sensations of each inhalation and exhalation.
As you continue to walk, engage your senses fully. Notice each sight, touch, and sound so that you savor every sensation.
When you notice that your mind has wandered—and it undoubtedly will—gently bring your attention back to the sensations of the moment, including your dog’s delight at being with you and outdoors.
Mindfulness is a lifelong practice that can help you to better appreciate simple everyday experiences like being physically active with your dog. By learning to focus on the here and now, you may find yourself less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past (emotions your dog never feels).
How human contact benefits dogs
People aren’t the only ones who stand to gain from their relationships with dogs. The dogs do, too.
As domesticated, social animals, dogs have been bred for centuries to be dependent on humans, to be attuned to their behavior, and to love them. A dog may be a man’s or woman’s best friend, but often a person is a dog’s best friend in return.
Research conducted with shelter animals, which tend to be anxious because of their social isolation and unfamiliar surroundings, show that human contact lowers their stress level, helping to calm them and make them more adoptable. In a study of 100-plus adult dogs housed at a Colorado shelter, one group of dogs was released from their kennels for 45 minutes a day and taken for walks or to play or be groomed, petted, or taken through basic dog obedience exercises, while another group was designated as a no-contact group and left in their runs or cages. The dogs that interacted with humans soon after their arrival at the shelter were found to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva. The effect was noted across all breeds and ages and both genders. Another study found a similar benefit on cortisol levels for dogs as well as better scores on behavior tests with just 25 minutes of exercise and human contact a day.
Special Section: Nutrition guidelines for dogs
Obesity is as much a problem for dogs today as it is for their owners, affecting 56% of the canine population. Not surprisingly, researchers have found a correlation between overweight in humans and their pets. A study from the Netherlands showed that among 47 dogs and owners visiting three veterinary clinics, overweight owners inevitably had overweight dogs—and the more overweight the owner, the more overweight the dog. (The same was not true for cats and their owners.) An American study had similar results—dogs with overweight owners were likely to be overweight themselves, and both were prone to having health issues and consuming less nutritionally sound diets than normal-weight people and pets (see “Assessing your pet’s weight”).
It’s well established that people can influence other people in adopting both good and bad health habits, and the same holds true for dogs and their owners. Although dogs are naturally active, they are also amazingly adaptive and attuned to human behavior. If they live with a couch potato who loves to snack, typically they become couch potatoes that love to snack, too! In fact, a survey of 153 Australian veterinary practices firmly placed the blame for dog obesity on “human-specific factors” such as the owners’ obesity and lack of exercise, as well as giving too many treats and overpampering, rather than on dog breed, age, gender, neutering or spaying, or a predisposition to obesity.
Canine obesity is truly a serious matter: being overweight predisposes dogs to arthritis and other orthopedic diseases, cancer, diabetes, urinary tract and reproductive disorders, skin diseases, and heart-lung ailments—much the same as it does humans. In addition, pets that are overweight for their size live about two years less than pets that are an ideal weight. Dog breeds that are most prone to overweight and obesity include basset hounds, beagles, cairn terriers, cocker spaniels, corgis, dachshunds, dalmatians, Cavalier King Charles spaniels, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, rottweilers, Scottish terriers, and shelties.
Following are answers to some frequently asked questions about healthy nutrition for dogs:
What nutrient mix is best? It used to be thought that dogs were carnivores, and so people never even thought of giving them a carrot or apple to munch on. But dog nutrition has advanced substantially in recent years as food manufacturers have recognized that, just like humans, dogs need a mix of protein, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals to stay healthy. Recent research about dogs as omnivores bears this new thinking out. A study published in the scientific journal Nature compared the genomes of 12 wolves and 60 dogs of different breeds. The researchers found that dogs have genes that code for digestion of starches and wolves do not, suggesting that dogs evolved to eat a diet more similar to humans than wolves did. (Wolves are largely meat-eaters.) This finding supports the idea that dogs became domesticated by hanging around human settlements and eating from our scrap heaps.
Which feeding method? You can adopt one of three different feeding methods for your dog, based on your dog’s needs and eating habits. No matter which approach you employ, be sure the dog always has water in his bowl. Water makes up 60% to 70% of a dog’s body weight, so it’s essential for good health.
The portion-control feeding method dictates that you measure out your dog’s food. This method is the best approach for dogs that have weight problems or are overeaters.
The free-choice feeding method makes food (usually dry food that won’t spoil easily) available all the time so the dog can eat when and however much she wants. This method is only appropriate for pregnant and nursing female dogs, which need extra nutrition, and dogs that need to gain weight. Veterinarians don’t recommend this method for the vast majority of dogs since most will overeat.
The timed-feeding method entails limiting eating to specified time periods. You put food in your dog’s bowl and leave it there for 30 minutes. If the dog doesn’t consume it within half an hour, you take it away. This method is used for dogs that have been “trained” to hold out for treats and have been refusing meals of dog food. Within a few days, most dogs learn to eat their food quickly or risk losing it.
What kind of food? Most commercial dog foods provide adequate nutrition for dogs. Just be sure that the product you select carries a statement saying it meets the nutritional standards set by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and has been tested using an AAFCO feeding trial.
As dogs have assumed more importance in our lives, deciding what to feed them has gotten more complicated. In the past decade there have been several outbreaks of food-borne illnesses from dog food and a frightening episode of dogs being poisoned by tainted food originating in China. From these events, we have learned that most dog foods contain ingredients sourced from the same major manufacturers, and that most dog food makers, no matter how expensive the brand, cannot always document the origin of their ingredients. Since then, dog food companies have tightened up the sourcing of ingredients and their control over how components are handled. As a result, pet foods are safer than they used to be.
As part of the response to the problems with pet foods, there has been an explosion of premium-brand dog foods in grocery stores, boutiques, and large pet-supply stores. If you feel strongly that you want your dog to eat organic food, food without preservatives or byproducts, or food with specific ingredients, you can find many brands and products to select from. If your dog is older, overweight, or has a sensitive stomach, discuss options with your veterinarian. Many of the premium brands may be inappropriate for overweight dogs or those that are prone to digestive upset—they typically contain more fat and less fiber than veterinarian-recommended brands and can contribute to weight gain and gastrointestinal ills.
Some dogs may develop rashes and gastrointestinal symptoms from allergies to certain foods. Consult a vet if you think this is happening with your dog.
Wet or dry? Both wet or moist dog food (in cans, plastic bags, or tubs) and dry dog food (kibble) can be nutritious. Dry dog food is more convenient, easier to measure, less costly, less messy, and safe to leave out for days. It also may help to clean your dog’s teeth. Your dog may, however, find it less palatable than wet food, which typically contains more protein and meat, poultry, or fish closer to its natural state. By definition, wet foods also contain more water than kibble, providing an added benefit for dogs that don’t drink enough water. And many older dogs or dogs with digestive problems may prefer wet food because it’s easier to digest. However, wet food must be refrigerated after opening, and it shouldn’t be left in a dog’s bowl longer than a couple of hours or it might spoil. That makes it a poor choice for fussy or indifferent eaters. You can, of course, mix the two types together, or give the wet food as an occasional treat.
What about home cooking and table scraps? Table scraps such as poultry, beef, eggs, vegetables, and fruits are generally fine for dogs, though there are some exceptions (see “Foods dogs shouldn’t eat”). While most table scraps are okay, don’t forget to account for the calories and reduce the other food you’re feeding the dog. It’s also not a good idea to feed the dog from the table, as that encourages begging; it’s better to put table scraps in the dog’s bowl.
Homemade meals for pets are popular today, but they are not sufficient as your dog’s exclusive diet unless they’re made from a veterinary nutritionist’s balanced recipe and the ingredients are weighed for each meal. Studies show that owner-made meals are usually nutritionally unbalanced and deficient in certain requirements. The safest rule is that AAFCO-approved (and therefore nutritionally balanced) dog food should make up at least 70% of the daily food intake.
Foods dogs shouldn’t eat
Most table scraps are okay for your dog, but some should be avoided. Dairy products should be limited, for example, because dogs don’t make as much of the enzyme lactase to break down dairy products as people do. A little cheese is usually okay, but don’t give the dog milk.
In addition, a number of other foods that people commonly consume are harmful to dogs. Never feed your dog any of the following:
A dog that vomits, has diarrhea, or is acting lethargic may have eaten something unhealthy. Call your vet for guidance if you suspect your dog has consumed harmful foods.
Report any problems with packaged pet foods to the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine at www.fda.gov/AnimalVeterinary.
If you choose to give homemade foods to your dog, take the time to cook all meats, fish, and fowl thoroughly and ensure the dishes you make offer the mix of nutrients your dog needs.
How much? The amount of food you feed a dog depends on his size, age, activity level, and health status. Portion control is just as important for dogs, though, as for people. Follow package directions for your dog’s size and activity level; if in doubt, ask your vet for recommendations on how much to feed your dog.
When? The American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends feeding your dog twice a day, with meals eight to 12 hours apart. (Puppies should be fed three times a day.)
What about treats? As with humans, obesity in dogs is often linked to too much snacking, so limit treats to 10% of your dog’s total calorie intake. For a Labrador retriever weighing 70 pounds, that would be about seven medium-size dog biscuits. Carrots, apple slices, frozen green beans or peas, and other vegetables and fruits are excellent low-calorie snacks for dogs, ones they enjoy for their crunch. It’s also great to make a dog work for his treats: put them in a dog toy (the Kong is a popular rubber toy for this purpose—you stuff soft treats or peanut butter into a hole in the center) and make him figure out how to get the food out.
How do I put my dog on a weight-loss diet? First, evaluate what you’re feeding your dog now. This will require a bit of calculating on your part, but all commercial foods have nutrition labels that provide calorie information. Don’t forget to add in what you’re feeding in table scraps and treats.
Next, ask your vet how many calories your dog should eat to lose weight. One commonly employed method is to reduce your dog’s current calorie intake by 20%. So if your overweight, 45-pound dog is eating 1,200 calories a day, reduce that to 960 calories a day and she should begin to lose. You’ll need to measure out the food you give the dog; most dry weight-loss dog foods contain about 300 calories per cup. Also be sure to allocate 10% of the dog’s calories to treats or she’ll undoubtedly notice.
It’s important that dogs on a weight-loss diet receive more protein than usual so they don’t lose muscle mass and don’t feel hungry. Your vet can offer prescription weight-loss foods that are specially formulated to offer the right mix of protein, vitamins, and minerals and leave them feeling full. Although these products are preferable, they can be expensive, in which case supermarket and pet store weight-loss formulas are a good second choice. Simply reducing the amount of regular food you offer can be an option, too, if your dog doesn’t have much weight to lose.
To lose weight and keep it off, dogs also need to get more physical activity. (See “Exercise guidelines for dogs,” for tips on increasing exercise together.)
Assessing your pet’s weight
Although a few veterinary experts have tried to develop a canine-specific body mass index (BMI) system, most of these attempts haven’t been terribly accurate—there’s just too much variability among mixed breeds and even purebred dogs. For the same reason, there are also no standard height and weight charts for dogs as there are for humans.
The best way to get an idea of how much your pet weighs and whether he has lost or gained weight is to schedule regular vet visits. You might also attempt to weigh your dog on your home scale; this can be tricky to accomplish, as you typically will have to pick the dog up and step on the scale together to get a weight reading (and then subtract your own weight). A better at-home option is to assess your dog according to the Body Condition Scoring (BCS) System, the tried-and-true method veterinarians use to estimate if your dog is underweight, at an ideal weight, overweight, or obese. Here’s how:
Examine your dog’s ribs. If you can see them distinctly and the dog has very little body fat, your dog is probably on the overly thin side. If you can’t see them, but you can feel the ribs when you search for them with your fingers, the dog is likely at an ideal weight. And if you have to really search for them, poking and prodding through excess skin and fat, your dog is likely overweight or even obese.
Look at your dog’s stomach from the side—it should be tucked up behind the ribs. If it bulges or hangs toward the floor, that’s a sure sign of overweight and obesity.
Look at your dog’s silhouette from above—it should curve in at the ribs and out at the hips if the dog is at an ideal weight. If the dog has no waist at all and obvious fat deposits, then your dog is too heavy.
Following is a summary of what each of the five drawings means.
1. Too thin. The ribs, spine, and hip bones are clearly visible under the skin. Viewed from the side, the dog has a severe abdominal tuck, meaning that the stomach between the ribs and hind legs comes way up. From above, the dog’s silhouette resembles an hourglass. Fat accounts for less than 5% of the dog’s weight.
2. Underweight. This dog has some fat, but you can easily feel the ribs with your fingers. The pelvic bones are prominent. The dog has an abdominal tuck—and an hourglass silhouette when viewed from above. Fat accounts for 5% to 15% of the dog’s weight.
3. Ideal. You can easily feel the ribs with your fingers, but they have a little fat cover. The base of the tail, too, has a small pad of fat covering it. The dog has an abdominal tuck, but it is not as pronounced as in the underweight dog, and the view from above shows only a modest indentation at the waist. Fat accounts for 16% to 25% of the dog’s weight.
4. Overweight. The ribs are difficult for you to feel under the fat. Viewed from the side, the dog has no abdominal tuck, and when you look down at the dog from above, you see no indentation at the waist. Fat accounts for 26% to 35% of the dog’s weight.
5. Obese. It’s difficult for you to feel the dog’s ribs under the layer of fat. It’s also hard to feel the base of the tail under the thick fat cover. The dog has no abdominal tuck and bulges at the waist. This dog is 20% above its ideal body weight. Fat accounts for more than 35% of the dog’s weight.
Source: Fitness Unleashed! A Dog and Owner’s Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together, by Marty Becker and Robert Kushner (Three Rivers Press, 2006).
Exercise for you and your dog
It’s probably no surprise to you, but most people don’t exercise as much as they should—despite knowing that physical activity confers many health benefits. Humans have become more and more sedentary as our world has advanced technologically. We drive our cars instead of walking or biking, we take elevators and escalators instead of climbing the stairs, we eat takeout in front of the TV instead of farming or hunting for our food, we email a colleague instead of walking down the hall to his or her office to have a conversation, and we spend hours in front of a computer screen doing our jobs and socializing. Dogs can help you overcome this inertia.
Exercise whys and wherefores
So why is exercise so important? To put it succinctly, regular exercise will help you feel, think, and look better. It also can prevent early death: one study suggested that nearly 10% of deaths worldwide are linked to a lack of physical exercise.
It’s particularly important to keep exercising as you age because muscle mass tends to decline over the years. Sarcopenia, the gradual decrease in muscle tissue, starts earlier than you realize—around age 30. The typical 30-year-old can expect to lose about 25% of muscle mass and strength by age 70 and another 25% by age 90, with resulting effects on energy, balance, mood, and many diseases.
Lack of exercise also causes changes in your heart and lungs. They become less efficient at oxygenating your blood and pumping that blood (along with nutrients) to all parts of your body. That in turn affects your energy level, most noticeably during periods of physical exertion. Compared with an active person, a sedentary person experiences more fatigue when carrying out a physically demanding task and has both a higher heart rate and lower oxygen consumption.
Inactivity also has psychological effects. The less active you are, the less active you want to be.
On the flip side, strong evidence from thousands of studies shows that engaging in regular exercise
lowers your risks for heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, colon and breast cancers, and metabolic syndrome
strengthens your muscles, lungs, and heart
helps prevent falls that can lead to debilitating fractures and loss of independence
helps you maintain a healthy weight
boosts bone density (provided the exercises are weight-bearing, meaning they work against gravity)
eases depression, stress, and anxiety, and improves mood
increases focus and concentration
boosts mental sharpness in older adults
improves functional abilities in older adults—that is, being able to walk up stairs or through a store, heft groceries, rise from a chair without help, and perform a multitude of other activities that permit independence or bring joy to living.
In short, regular exercise does more to protect your health and energy than any medical treatment ever invented or discovered. Through regular exercise, you can do more to protect your health than your doctor can do for you—and the same goes for your dog.
The exercise prescription for people
The best exercise prescription is to follow the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which are based on thousands of studies on exercise.
The Physical Activity Guidelines recommend 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week (for example, half an hour five days a week), or 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a mix of the two—plus two strength training sessions a week. If you’re really ambitious and you want even greater health benefits, double the numbers for a total of 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise, or mix and match moderate- and vigorous-intensity exercises. You can portion out the total exercise time throughout the week to suit your own schedule.
The most convenient and affordable aerobic exercise is walking—an excellent activity to do with a dog. See “Walking with your dog,” for tips on starting a walking program with your dog. You can also monitor your steps with a pedometer (see “Using a pedometer”). Strive for 10,000 steps a day (about five miles) in your daily activities, including exercise sessions.
Brisk walking for at least half an hour, five times a week, has nearly the same health benefits as more vigorous exercise (see “How fast is brisk?”). People who take brisk walks have a lower risk for heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, colon cancer, and osteoporosis. Even mental health problems are less frequent in regular walkers.
How fast is brisk?
A brisk walk generally clocks in at about 3 to 4 miles per hour. But since people don’t come equipped with built-in speedometers, you need some way to measure your walking speed. One way is to count your steps per minute. Provided you’re walking on level ground, you can use the following as a general guide to gauge your pace:
Slow = 80 steps per minute
Moderate to brisk = 100 steps per minute
Fast = 120 steps per minute
Race walking = More than 120 steps per minute
If you are up for more vigorous workouts, you can try running, hiking, or biking with your dog. In truth, exercise intensity is dictated more by your level of fitness than by the type of activity itself—so even a walk can be termed “vigorous” if you pick up the pace and boost your heart rate. Use the singing test to gauge your intensity level: If you can sing while you’re exercising, you are at a low intensity level. If you can talk but not sing while you’re exercising, you are at a moderate level of intensity. If you cannot sing or talk while you’re exercising, then you are at a vigorous level.
While you’re walking your dog, you might also add some interval training into the mix. This is a popular form of exercise that can burn calories quickly and boost your aerobic capacity. You alternate periods of moderate activity—say, walking at a brisk pace for five minutes—with short intervals of intensive activity—say, running for a minute. By training this way, you can reduce a 30-minute walk to a 20-minute walk and get similar benefits—or increase the benefits of your 30-minute workout. Plus, doing intervals can be a fun change to your usual walking routine. Some people use telephone poles or trees as markers to indicate when to speed up and slow down, making the walk a kind of game.
Before starting any new exercise program, it is important to speak with your doctor if you have heart or lung disease, diabetes, or another chronic illness. If you are sedentary now, you will need to start at a low intensity and progress slowly. The most dangerous thing you can do is go from being a couch potato to running at a vigorous sprint—a classic setup for a heart attack, or, more commonly, muscle strains and sprains.
After walking, running, or biking with your dog, stretch in order to prevent your muscles from tightening up and to preserve your range of motion.
Just remember, a little exercise is better than none. Even if you can’t meet these guidelines, try and get whatever activity suits your current abilities. Start slowly and build gradually as your strength and endurance improve.
Exercise guidelines for dogs
Dogs love to exercise—walking, running, swimming, playing. It’s natural for them to be active—that is, if people let them!
How much to exercise
According to Marty Becker, co-author of Fitness Unleashed: A Dog and Owner’s Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together, a useful rule of thumb is to walk a daily minimum of two blocks for every 10 pounds of your dog’s body weight. So if you have a 70-pound golden retriever, you would want to walk 14 blocks or about a mile each day.
Still, how much exercise a dog needs and will tolerate is less dependent on its size (small dogs may tire easily, but large dogs such as Great Danes and Newfoundlands can be lethargic by nature) than on other factors. Pay attention to what your dog is trying to tell you if he refuses to budge another inch, begins to dilly-dally, lies down, or is panting heavily and can’t catch his breath. That means he’s tired (see “Help your dog avoid injuries”). Also consider these issues:
Breed. Working dogs (such as huskies and boxers), herders (such as collies, sheepdogs, and shepherds), and terriers tend to have more energy and demand more exercise than other dog breeds.
Age, health condition, and history of injuries. Dogs slow down as they age, especially if they suffer from arthritis, diabetes, or other health conditions, and if they’ve had orthopedic injuries. Walks that are shorter (five to 10 minutes) and more frequent are better for these dogs than one long walk a day.
Your lifestyle. Your habits can override a dog’s innate desire to exercise. If a Yorkie lives with a family that likes to take him on hikes, the dog will acclimate to being highly active. But if he lives with an elderly person who doesn’t engage in much physical activity, the dog is likely to be sedentary and deconditioned. Take that into account when you begin an exercise program with your dog so you don’t overdo it.
Ken’s story: Running with the pack
Ken Zeserson, a retired communications executive living in Ithaca, N.Y., has had dogs in his life since he was 8 years old. All have been mutts or rescues—and he can’t imagine his life without them.
An avid runner, Ken is in superb physical condition at age 66, and he’s convinced that running with dogs has improved his overall performance. “I’ve run with four different dogs in my life, including Yuki, a white shepherd-husky mix that I found through Petfinder,” he says. “I didn’t get her so she could be a running companion, but she loves to run and I love to run, so we do it together.” Indeed, on days when Ken plans to go to the gym to lift weights rather than hitting the pavement, he often finds Yuki, a beseeching look on her face, at the door. He usually ends up changing his plans and taking her to a nearby dog park for a run instead.
After their run, Ken and Yuki like to visit a fenced area in the dog park where she can play with other dogs while he talks with their owners. “I’ve met so many fascinating people who are dog owners—people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and at the dog park, we are all ‘off leash,'” Ken says, emphasizing the social value of having a dog. “We have a real sense of community and shared experience—and we sure do get a kick out of watching our dogs run around with each other.”
Yuki helps Ken in other ways, too. “There is a communion between people and dogs that goes way beyond verbal communication,” he says. “When I’m having a bad day, sitting with Yuki and petting her calms me down. Dogs enrich our lives in so many ways.”
When and where to exercise
Dogs typically need to go out three times a day to eliminate. They should also go out to exercise at least once a day. This is important for both their physical and mental health.
It’s largely up to you how to schedule that exercise. Your dog will likely want to go out for a walk or run with you or to play whenever you like. Some people prefer walks or other exercise in the early morning; others, late afternoon or evening. Try to schedule the activity so it happens regularly at the same time each day. Your dog will look forward to that activity and will count on you for it—and in turn you’ll find yourself exercising more regularly, too.
Walks through the neighborhood or on a track or trail are good exercise for both of you. (For more on choosing walking routes, see “Choose your route”.) Alternatively, enclosed dog parks provide a great way to let your dog run and play, even if they’re less helpful for your own exercise needs (see “Dog park etiquette”).
Dog park etiquette
The dog park can be a great place for you and your dog to socialize and get exercise. But visiting a dog park requires that you take responsibility for your dog’s behavior, both on and off leash. Going to a dog-friendly area doesn’t give your dog a license to run roughshod over other dogs (even in a playful way), plow into bystanders (perhaps injuring them), or steal balls and toys from less-dominant pups. It’s okay to shoot the breeze with other dog owners at the park, but you also need to pay close attention to what your dog is doing while you’re schmoozing. Following are some general rules.
First, be sure your dog is up for socializing with other dogs. A fearful or aggressive dog will likely not play well with other dogs, and small dogs may be bullied by bigger dogs. This is why experts recommend socializing your dog as a puppy; that’s when dogs can learn easily and naturally to play well with others.
Scope out the dog park and its visitors, making sure it’s a good environment for your dog, before you let him loose. If there are too many dogs or too many rough dogs in the area, come back another time when it is quieter. Observe on- and off-leash rules and signs.
Don’t bring small children to the dog park. You can’t watch both them and the dogs, and they may get hurt. Likewise, don’t bring puppies under 4 months of age (they won’t have enough immunity to infections yet), dogs that haven’t had their shots or are not licensed, sick dogs, or female dogs in heat.
Carry citronella spray (it acts as a deterrent to dogs), an air horn, or a whistle to break up fights. Don’t get in between two fighting dogs, or you may get yourself or them injured. Also be aware of signs that your dog is getting tense, fearful, or aggressive, and remove him from play if necessary before an incident occurs.
Finally, always pick up after your dog. It’s no fun for anyone to see or step in dog droppings.
Exercise for weight loss
There’s very little information on how much exercise a dog needs in order to lose weight. In principle, an exercise plan for a dog, particularly one that is overweight or out of shape, is virtually the same as for a person in that situation. The big difference is that people can gauge their endurance level. In contrast, many dogs (and particularly retrievers) will push themselves beyond their endurance levels because they’re so happy to have your attention and they want to please you. As a result, they can easily overexert and overheat themselves.
Help your dog avoid injuries
Just as people need to be careful when exercising so they don’t injure themselves, you should make sure that you aren’t pushing your dog too hard. Some guidelines:
Don’t turn your dog into a weekend warrior. Exercise regularly, not sporadically, to prevent injuries and muscle soreness. Prevent overuse syndromes by cross-training—hike one day, run the next, play ball, swim. Don’t stress the same muscles every day.
Be the voice of reason. Your dog may be willing to keep chasing a ball for hours and hurt herself in the process. As her caretaker, you need to know when she’s had enough.
Don’t start puppies with strenuous, long-distance activities such as running or agility training that can stress their bones. Toy breeds mature skeletally by about 10 months of age, but giant breeds can take as long as 2 to 2½ years. Instead, allow your puppy to play and take him on short walks. Ease into new activities. Short (five to 10 minutes), more frequent episodes of exercise are the safest way to start. If a dog is older or has arthritis, longer or more intensive outings are more likely to exacerbate stiffness and pain. That said, dogs with arthritis still need exercise to keep joints fluid, strong, and flexible. One way to help these dogs warm up before exercise is to apply heat to the dog’s tissues. Use a heating pad, or moisten a towel and put it in the dryer until it’s warm enough to use.
Be aware of how long it takes your dog to recover from a new type of activity. If your dog is sleeping for hours, obviously sore, limping or stiff, has trouble getting up from a lying position, or hesitates to jump up after exercising, then you’ve overdone it. That’s a cue to cut it back by 25%.
After exercise, you can apply ice to problem areas. You can usually tell immediately if a dog likes being iced or hates it (in which case she’ll move away from the ice pack).
Always praise the dog after your activity and immediately give him water.
In addition, you should always be aware of the danger of heatstroke (see “Protect your dog from heatstroke”).
Protect your dog from heatstroke
Dogs generally tolerate cold temperatures well (although small, delicate breeds may need a coat or sweater and even booties to keep them warm). Hot temperatures are another story. Dogs don’t do well exercising in hot weather or, in many cases, even during the transition from spring to summer, when they’re not yet acclimated to increased temperatures. Not only do they have a fur coat, no matter the season, but their body-cooling system is less efficient than people’s. Mostly they pant to cool off, perspiring very little from their body surface. Particularly if your dog is overweight, walking on a hot, humid day may be setting your pet up for overheating, signaled by panting and lethargy.
Even worse, dogs may develop heatstroke if their body temperature rises over 104° F. (Typically, dog temperatures range between 101° and 103° F.) Signs of this serious condition, which can be life-threatening, include vomiting, exhaustion, staggering about or collapsing, loss of consciousness, and labored breathing. If left untreated, heatstroke can progress to seizures and even death, so always get your dog to a vet quickly if any of these symptoms develop.
Many dogs can gradually acclimate to hot weather if you expose them slowly and steadily. Others can’t: breeds with brachycephaly (pushed-in faces), such as pugs, Boston terriers, bulldogs, boxers, Lhasa apsos, Pekingese, shih tzus, and bull mastiffs, are prone to breathing problems even on the best of days. These dogs have shortened heads and often narrowed airways that can lead to respiratory issues, which worsen in hot, humid weather. Breeds such as beagles that have thick tissue at the back of their throats are also at high risk for overheating and heatstroke; once they start to get hot, they begin panting heavily, which can lead to swelling in the back of the throat and blocks air movement. That means they can’t breathe and they can’t cool off. One way to tell if your dog is at high risk, other than the telltale physical signs of brachycephaly, is if your dog snores.
To prevent heatstroke, follow these rules on hot, humid days:
Walking with your dog
Walking with your dog is a win-win situation. You both get physical activity, which can help manage weight and lower your risk of chronic diseases; you get fresh air and a dose of nature; and it can be socially stimulating. Plus, it’s difficult to feel down if you observe your dog on a walk: as we mentioned earlier (see “Mindfulness”), his head is up; his eyes, nose, and ears are alert; and he is happy to be outside, to be walking, and to be with you. That attitude can be contagious.
And there’s one more compelling reason to get out and walk with your dog: a well-exercised dog is a well-behaved dog. If your dog tires herself out during your daily walks and romps, she’s less likely to engage in excessive barking, chewing, digging, and other troublesome behaviors.
Here’s a walking plan that will get you both in shape.
Set your goal
Ideally, you should get out and actively walk with your dog at least 30 minutes five days a week, which is what the Physical Activity Guidelines recommend; the American College of Sports Medicine advises the same amount of activity to blunt the risk of weight gain with age. If you’re walking, that’s about 12 to 20 miles a week (see “Using a pedometer”). That’s also the minimal activity level recommended if you want to lose weight, but you’ll lose more if you exercise up to 90 minutes five times a week. Of course, if either you or your dog is out of shape or overweight, you’ll need to work up to these goals.
Using a pedometer
If you’ve never used a pedometer—a device to count your steps and the distance you travel—this may be a good time to start. A review of 26 studies published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that using a pedometer can help boost your daily activity level. Pedometer users increased their activity by over 2,000 steps per day—particularly if they selected a goal they wanted to reach. They also decreased their body mass index (BMI) and blood pressure.
Old-school pedometers, which typically clip onto your hip or waist, measure how many steps you take, indoors and out, based on your body movement. Omron is one popular brand with many different models. Newer devices, such as those made by Fitbit and Jawbone, can be clipped onto your shoe or wrist as well as your waistband, or tucked into a pocket. There are also GPS watches made by Garmin and other manufacturers that measure via satellite the distance you travel. (These typically can only be used outdoors, but are good for biking as well as walking.) Finally, there are numerous free cellphone apps you can download and sync up with a pedometer to measure your steps, such as MapMyWalk.
Many of these pedometers calculate how many calories you’ve burned and how fast you’re walking, and can time how long you walk or alert you when you’ve reached your time goal. Some even have alarms that remind you it’s time to walk (if your dog doesn’t remind you first).
You can also place a pedometer on your dog—either one specially made for canines or a human pedometer. Either type is attached to the dog’s collar. The closer the pedometer is to the legs, the more accurate it will be (although it can be difficult to get it to stay on). The Purina Petometer smartphone app can also help you track your walks.
Typically, it’s advised that adults shoot for 10,000 steps a day, which averages about four to five miles. That goal includes all of your activity for the day, not just walks with your dog. Still, a 20-minute walk with your dog can earn you both 2,000 steps.
Choose your route
It’s important that you choose a route that’s safe for both you and your dog. If your dog is fearful around lots of traffic, you obviously don’t want to walk on a busy road; a hiking trail or walking path is a better option.
You also want to consider how challenging a route is; neither you nor your dog may be up to hiking hills when you first start exercising. The surface is important, too: you and your dog will have the surest footing on level, hard-dirt or paved sidewalks and trails.
If you can, scope out your proposed walking path in the car or by yourself to determine the best distance and the safest route for you both.
Practice leash walking
To make walking work as a form of exercise you must teach your dog to heel on a leash, or you’ll spend most of your time wrangling the dog and not getting up to walking speed (see “Teaching a dog to heel”).
Here’s a plan to get you going, with warm-ups and cool-downs.
Warm up for five to 10 minutes. Start slowly. A walk is a dog’s favorite time of day because it delivers so much stimulation, so you want to make sure he enjoys it as much as you do. That means letting your dog sniff and dawdle a bit until you both feel loose and ready to walk at a steady pace. You can march in place and gently swing your arms during this time.
Walk it! If you haven’t been walking regularly, start slowly on a level surface for five to 10 minutes. As your energy level rises and your muscles warm up, pick up the pace to boost your heart rate. Remember: if you can talk easily while performing your routine, exercise harder. If you can’t carry on a conversation at all, slow down a bit. As for your dog, you want her to pant by the end of the walk, but not so much that she can’t breathe well. Picking up the pace and getting your dog to do it with you will likely take some practice. You’ll want to hold your dog’s leash close to you and keep her on the side away from traffic.
Add five minutes every other day you walk until you reach your goal of 30 to 90 minutes. If you are starting with a very overweight or out-of-shape dog, split your workout into two sessions, walking twice a day for five to 10 minutes at a time.
Add intensity. Once you’ve achieved the distance and time you want, look for hills or steps to climb or sand to walk on during your outings. Or do intervals of moderate walking interspersed with faster walking or even running. Increase the length and intensity of your walk to a degree that’s challenging but not overwhelming for you and your dog.
Cool down after every walk for five to 10 minutes. That means walking slowly until your heart rate and breathing return close to normal. This is a perfect time to let the dog take the lead again to explore the surroundings while you both catch your breath. Then stretch your legs and calf muscles (see “Two good stretches to use after a walk”).
Two good stretches to use after a walk
After walking your dog, remember to do both of these stretches in order to keep your muscles flexible.
Extend your right leg straight back and press the heel toward the floor. Allow your left knee to bend as you do so, while keeping that heel grounded on the floor. Hold. Return to the starting position, then repeat with your left leg.
Extend your right leg straight back and press the heel toward the floor. Allow your left knee to bend as you do so, while keeping the heel grounded on the floor. Now bend your right knee as much as possible, pressing into the back heel.
Tips and techniques:
These stretches are excerpted from the Harvard Special Health Report Stretching: 35 Stretches to Improve Flexibility and Reduce Pain. You can order it online at www.health.harvard.edu or by calling 877-649-9457 (toll-free).
After the walk. Fill the dog’s water bowl after each outing so she can drink freely. Be sure to check the dog immediately after your walk and later when you’re home to see how he handled the activity. If he is panting wildly with his tongue hanging out, is limping, sleeps for hours after a walk, or shows other signs of overexertion, you’ll need to pull back on your activity level until his conditioning catches up to yours.
Taking a walk along a nature trail or up a mountain can open up new vistas for both you and your canine companion, as long as you’re both physically prepared for the extra effort. Most public trails require that you keep your dog on a leash at all times. If you go to an off-leash area, be sure the dog will come when you call before you let her go. (Practice, practice, practice recalling the dog before you go to public area where he could get distracted by people or other animals and take off.)
Don’t allow the dog to drink from standing water, as it may contain parasites, but rather bring water and food along for both you and your pet. Also watch the trail for debris that could injure tender pads. (You may even want to buy doggie booties to avoid injury, along with a dog coat to keep her warm if you’re going to be hiking all day in cold weather.) A first-aid kit and your cellphone are other good items to bring along.
Always do a tick check of yourself and the dog after being in the woods or grassy areas (see “Protect yourself from tick-borne infections”).
Protect yourself from tick-borne infections
W hen exercising outdoors, one potential problem for both you and your dog is the possibility of contracting Lyme disease. If you live in an area where ticks are prevalent, protect your dog with a repellent such as Frontline Plus or K9 Advantix II. (Apply it between the dog’s shoulder blades once a month during tick season.)
As for humans, about 30,000 cases of Lyme disease are reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) each year. The infection is caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi, which is carried and transmitted by deer ticks. A number of other tick-borne illnesses have been identified throughout the United States, including anaplasmosis, babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and tularemia. In addition, a new deer tick–transmitted bacterium called Borrelia miyamotoi was identified in 2013; it causes fever and Lyme-like symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, muscle aches, and fatigue.
To protect yourself, follow these guidelines:
If you find a tick, remove it immediately. Use fine-pointed tweezers to pull it straight up and out. Place it in a jar of alcohol to kill it and clean the bite wound with disinfectant. If the tick has been attached for less than 36 to 48 hours, it’s unlikely to have transmitted Lyme disease. If it’s been on longer than that or is engorged with blood, remove it and see your doctor; some doctors will give you a single dose of the antibiotic doxycycline to prevent the disease.
Monitor the bite wound for the next month. If you fall ill within two weeks of removing a tick—you get a fever or you develop a bull’s-eye rash—see a physician for testing and antibiotic treatment.
If you feel ill with sustained fatigue, headache, muscle aches, and neck and joint stiffness, but don’t test positive for Lyme, ask to be tested for Borrelia miyamotoi and other tick-borne illnesses. For more information on preventing tick bites and tick-borne disease, visit the American Lyme Disease Foundation website (www.aldf.com).
Running with your dog is a great exercise and bonding experience, but be aware that dogs will often push themselves past their energy and cooling limits. They have very insufficient cooling mechanisms compared with people (see “Protect your dog from heatstroke”).
You shouldn’t run with puppies—their bones are still growing and that puts them at risk for injury if they’re too active. Older, overweight, and arthritic dogs probably aren’t up for running either. However, working- and hunting-breed dogs make great runners, as do other high-energy dogs.
Put your dog through a warm-up and cool-down, just as you do for yourself. See “Walking with your dog”, for tips on how to build intensity and distance.
It can be tricky at first, but you can teach your dog to be your biking companion. Holding the dog leash in your hands while you ride isn’t ideal. And you definitely don’t want to tie the lead to the handlebars—if the dog jerks the leash, you could fall off the bike. The best strategy is to buy a special device that attaches the lead to the bike frame or seat post; brand names include Springer and WalkyDog. You can use a regular dog collar, but a harness is an even better idea as it doesn’t stress the dog’s neck.
Take some walks with the dog and the bike before you try biking-and-running together. Start rides at a slow pace so she can get used to the motion, and practice the commands you will give when you’re turning, stopping, and starting. Be sure to do a warm-up and cool-down. The dog should run beside the bike or even slightly in front of it. If she is dragging behind, you’re going too fast, too far, or the activity is too much for her. Remember, people can bike longer than dogs can run alongside bikes, so scale back the activity for your pet.
Be sure to find some dog-friendly routes, such as bike paths and appropriate off-road trails, avoiding roads, which can be dangerous and scary for you both. Finally, always observe traffic and safety rules—and don’t forget to wear a helmet.
Swimming is a wonderful activity for dogs—particularly for those that have arthritis or orthopedic problems—because it doesn’t stress the joints. Today, pool-based swimming and exercises (physical therapy for dogs) are often used to rehabilitate dogs after orthopedic surgery, to treat dogs with orthopedic and neurologic issues, and to prevent injury and improve fitness. Swimming is also a great calorie-burning exercise for overweight dogs.
Most healthy dogs love the challenge of retrieving a ball or toy in the water. Many dogs are built to swim. Retrievers, for instance, have webbed toes and strong tails that act like rudders, and Portuguese water dogs and English water spaniels actually have “water” in their names because they’re naturals. Other dogs may never be good in the water—bulldogs tend to be sinkers rather than swimmers—and some may need help to become swimmers. Never throw a dog into a pool or lake, but rather gently introduce her to the water so she doesn’t become afraid of it. Support her midsection as she starts to paddle, and keep practicing until the dog begins to use both her front and rear paws. (Dogs that do the “doggie paddle,” using only their front paws, exhaust themselves quickly.) Alternatively, you might teach your dog to walk in water, which, especially at chest height, is an excellent strengthening exercise.
If you have a dog with severe arthritis and you take him to a lake where he has to walk a lot, he may be tired before he even reaches the water. The rocky, sandy surface on the edges of ponds and rivers also may be difficult for some dogs to navigate. In these cases, look into having your dog swim in a pool.
Consider putting a flotation device on bulldogs, older dogs, arthritic dogs, and others that are at risk for getting tired quickly in the water and drowning. Keep an eye on your dog for signs of flagging energy, and make her get out of the water before she’s too exhausted.
Playing fetch, Frisbee, or flying disc
Fetch, of course, is a classic dog exercise. You can do this with a ball, or a toy such as a Frisbee or flying disc. To step it up a notch, try racing your dog to the object instead of waiting for the dog to retrieve it and bring it back to you. The sport known as “disc dog” is a competitive, advanced form of Frisbee fetch, in which you throw a flying disc long distances and teach your dog to catch it while performing tricks.
It can be a lot of fun to teach your dog to run an obstacle course composed of hurdles, tunnels, stairs, and zigzag courses just like you’ve seen on canine competition shows. It takes a lot of work and practice, and you need to find an agility course or build one of your own, but it can be a satisfying and engaging activity for you both. See “Take an active vacation with your dog”, for dog camps where you can learn agility training. And if you’d like to participate in competitive, timed dog agility events, investigate the North American Dog Agility Council (www.nadac.com), Canine Performance Events (www.k9cpe.com), and the U.S. Dog Agility Association (www.usdaa.com).
This Scandinavian winter sport, also called ski driving, consists of having a dog (or two or three) in a harness pull you on cross-country skis. Many dogs—not just huskies—enjoy this winter activity. Their size and breed are less of an issue than their personality, enthusiasm for activity, and ability to be trained. Working breeds—including Akitas, Alaskan malamutes, Anatolian shepherds, Bernese mountain dogs, boxers, Portuguese water dogs, Siberian huskies, and Samoyeds—may be particularly adept at skijoring because they’ve been bred to pull. But Labrador and golden retrievers, Border collies, Brittany spaniels, and some mixed breeds can also make wonderful skijoring dogs.
In addition to skis, boots, and poles, you’ll need to buy or make a special harness for the dog and a wide waist belt and a line for yourself. You can also use a handle to attach to the line and then the harness, but it’s better if you have a waist belt, as it keeps your hands free to use ski poles and allows you to have more control of the ride. Next, you’ll need to find a trail where you can practice and train with your dog—investigate ski, snowmobiling, and skijoring clubs for information, as well as your local parks and recreation department. Of course, it helps if you have some skiing ability to start with, but you don’t need to be an expert skier to make a go of skijoring. One of the challenges is teaching your dog to pull you after you’ve taught him not to pull while walking on a leash. This requires that you train the dog to identify heeling with the leash and pulling with the skijoring harness.
When there’s no snow, you can try dry land versions of skijoring such as canicross (running with your dog pulling you) and bikejoring. What’s more, people with disabilities can enjoy the sport, perhaps by using a cart or sled that the dog pulls.
If you’d like to learn more about this dynamic, fun sport, a great place to start is by reading the book Skijor with Your Dog (see “Resources”). It offers advice on what you’ll need, where to get equipment, techniques, and tips.
Playing inside the house
If you can’t get outside—because you’re elderly or disabled, or because the weather is unpleasant—that doesn’t mean you and your dog can’t get some exercise. You can walk your dog around the house, taking laps around the dining room table, walking in and out of every room, and following the perimeter of the house. You can also play a game of tug-of-war or hide-and-seek (where you hide dog treats around the house), or walk up and down stairs with your dog (on a leash is best, so the dog doesn’t trip you).
Take an active vacation with your dog
For many dog owners, vacation isn’t really vacation if they have to leave their dog at home. Happily, today many motels and hotels allow you to bring your dog along. And if you’re looking for a fun vacation where you can bond with your dog, check out these resorts and camps. (You can find others on the Web with the search term “dog camps.”)
Keep in mind that most of these destinations require that dogs be older than 4 months, vaccinated, fully housebroken, well socialized, and nonaggressive toward people and other dogs.
Camp Unleashed (www.campunleashed.com) offers retreats throughout the year in Massachusetts’ Berkshire Mountains and Asheville, N.C. All of the activities you’ll find here are designed to enhance the dog-human relationship and help us see the world through canine eyes. Activities include hiking, swimming, canoeing, Frisbee, and agility training. You can also take classes in canine massage, aromatherapy, grooming, nutrition, clicker training, emergency care, and more. Accommodations are rustic at the camp, but you can also opt to stay in a local motel instead.
Camp Gone to the Dogs (www.camp-gone-tothe-dogs.com) takes place in idyllic Marlboro and Stowe, Vt., and offers 40-plus activities to choose from every day, from tricks and games to herding, agility and clicker training, jump chute, doggie swimming lessons, dock diving, flyball, and even Freestyle and square dancing. The camp is well known for helping participants take obedience training to the next level. Guests stay in dorms or woodsy cabins, or you can book a dog-friendly motel off-campus.
Canine Camp Getaway (www.caninecampgetaway.com), on historic Lake George in upstate New York’s Adirondack Mountains, offers dog training, dog sports, agility training, canine CPR, nutrition, and hiking on 300 acres. People can take advantage of amenities such as motel-style rooms with private baths, air conditioning, cable TV, wireless connection, fine dining, a bar, and an onsite spa.
Dog Paddling Adventures (www.dogpaddlingadventures.com), based in Ontario, Canada, offers summer canoeing, spring and fall hiking, and winter skijoring trips for you and your pet. You can take one- to four-day trips, and the price includes camping accommodations, meals, all equipment, park permits, life jackets, and backpacks for people and dogs, as well as the services of a wilderness guide. You don’t need experience—trips are labeled as introductory, beginner, or more advanced, so you won’t be overwhelmed. Most of the adventures take place on relatively small Canadian lakes and stay close to shore, so both you and your dog can hop out of the canoe to stretch your legs. Dogs typically go unleashed for most of the trips.
Red Mountain Resort (www.redmountainresort.com), an upscale spa and resort in St. George, Utah, near Las Vegas, is an option if you’re concerned about your own creature comforts. It offers a Pawsitive Adventure Week and special deluxe accommodations for guests traveling with dogs. During these canine-friendly special weeks, the resort provides organic treats, feeding dishes, and a comfy dog bed in your room. What if you don’t have a dog? You can also hike through the gorgeous red rock canyons with a dog from a local no-kill shelter on a Pound Puppy Hike (www.redmountainresort.com/hiking/63-hiking).
Another great activity to consider is dancing with your dog, either informally or in a dog dance form known as Freestyle. Your dog must have rock-solid obedience skills, after which you can teach her dance moves that you set to music, such as backing up in a straight line, pivoting in place, and side stepping. For more information on Freestyle, visit the website of the Canine Freestyle Federation at www.canine-freestyle.org. And see “Take an active vacation with your dog,” for dog camps that offer classes in Freestyle.
Adopting a dog
If you’re convinced that adopting a dog is a great step to take for your health, both physical and mental, first, congratulations on your decision. The next thing you need to do is figure out what kind of dog will make the best companion for you and your family. Talk to your family members and jointly agree on what qualities you like in dogs and what qualities you don’t, and what you can and can’t handle. Getting a dog is a 10- to 15-year care arrangement for a living being, so you need to be fully committed.
Deciding on the qualities you want
If you’ve never owned a dog before, it may not be obvious what type of dog will suit your lifestyle and living arrangements. Following are some important questions:
Do you have an active household with young children, disabled people, or frail elderly people? If so, you’ll want a gentle dog. In an active household, avoid toy breeds; they may get trampled by youngsters and are prone to barking and biting.
How big a dog would you like? Dogs range in size from tiny ones that could fit in a purse to strapping Great Danes. Consider your living space and daily activities. Remember, too, that if you get a very large or strong dog, it can be difficult and expensive to find caretakers if you go on vacation or work trips.
How much shedding can you tolerate, and how much grooming can you afford? Most dogs shed fur to some extent, especially dogs with double coats like chows and Akitas, which can be messy and provoke allergy attacks in some people. Some dogs, such as poodles and poodle mixes like Labradoodles, are bred to be nonshedding. But poodles, cocker spaniels, toy breeds, and certain other types of dogs often require a lot of professional grooming, so you’ll need to factor in the time and expense of owning such a dog.
How active do you plan to be with the dog? If you’re not terribly active, don’t get a dog that needs a lot of exercise, such as a golden retriever or husky. On the other hand, if you’d like a dog to run with, choose an animal that can tolerate lots of exercise such as a pointer or spaniel. This is one of the most important questions you can ask about a potential dog (and yourself). Inevitably, a dog that gets enough exercise will behave better in the home and be less prone to anxiety and its potentially destructive consequences.
Top 10 dog names
Many dog owners are as thoughtful as any parent about the names they choose for their pets. Dog names tend to rise and fall in popularity just like human names (and human names tend to predominate among the favorites). Here are the most popular dog names as of 2013:
Source: VPI Pet Insurance, 2013.
Who will take care of the dog? Although children will often beg for a dog and reassure parents that they will be the primary caretakers, the responsibility typically falls to the adults in a household. (And even if a child does care for the pet, you must supervise him or her.) The bottom line: if you and your family members aren’t prepared to feed and walk a dog, you shouldn’t get one.
How long will the dog be alone on a daily basis? Not only do dogs need to go out to eliminate every eight hours or so (or more often than that if they’re puppies or old and sick), but they can also suffer from loneliness and anxiety if isolated. You may have to hire a dog walker or take the dog to doggie day care.
Do you have other animals in the home, and will they get along with your new pet? Some dogs and cats will not tolerate a new animal in the home, so be sure to assess your current pets’ predisposition to new family members before you commit.
Do you live in the right size and kind of home for the dog you want to acquire? Big, rowdy Labrador retrievers and hyper Border collies won’t do well in tiny apartments and need plenty of space to run and play, especially when they’re young.
Do you want a puppy or a full-grown dog? Starting from scratch with a puppy can be a tremendous joy, but also a tremendous amount of work, so you want to be sure you’ll have time to properly housebreak, socialize, and train a puppy. Puppies can also be too challenging if you have young children or frail elderly people in your house—they nip playfully with sharp baby teeth (called milk teeth), which may instill fear in children (see “Beth’s story: Fearful no more, and they can roughhouse, which could lead them to knock people over. If you can’t deal with a puppy, a housebroken adult dog is often a better choice.
Beth’s story: Fearful no more
Dr. Elizabeth (Beth) Frates, one of the medical editors of this report, was afraid of dogs from the age of 8, when she was bitten by a friend’s Doberman. “We were skateboarding,” she recalls, “and the dog went after my neck and got my shoulder with its teeth. It was so terrifying to me that up until the age of 42, I would cross the street if I saw a dog coming, even a little dog.”
Four years ago, though, Beth’s family convinced her that it was time to get over her fear. “My husband, Jim, is a dog lover and worked on me for years to get a dog, and then my sons started pressuring me, too,” Beth recalls. “They told me I could run with the dog, which I love to do, and they would help take care of it. Coincidentally, around the same time, I happened to read that dogs boost longevity and reduce stress, and I finally gave in.” Enter their Goldendoodle Reesee. A mix of a golden retriever and a poodle, this gentle, sweet dog has affected Beth’s life in as much of a positive way as her fear of dogs affected it in a negative way for years before.
Beth’s motherly instinct kicked in immediately upon meeting Reesee, who as a puppy was too cute, tiny, and scared to provoke fear. Beth even slept downstairs in her house with Reesee the first night to ease the puppy’s anxiety about being in a new place. As Reesee grew, though, Beth’s dormant dog fear would occasionally raise its head. “I remember a time when Reesee was about 4 months old and she chased me around the kitchen island, nipping at my pants with her sharp puppy teeth,” she says. “It alarmed me at first, but my husband reassured me that it was just playful behavior, and I got used to it.”
Soon, Beth found that she and Reesee had bonded so closely that she became more open to interacting with other dogs as well. “Today, I love all dogs!” she says. Likewise, Beth’s 82-year-old mother, who lives with the family, has gotten over her fear of dogs. “Reesee is her best companion and keeps her company while we’re away for the day,” Beth reports.
Beth has found that being with Reesee helps her to connect with people in her neighborhood, as well as with nature. “I love my work and I work a lot, plus I love my two sons, my husband, and my mother, all of whom need care and attention. Between work and family, I don’t have much free time,” she says. Before she got a dog, she didn’t get out that much in the neighborhood, but over the past four years she’s met many people while on daily walks or runs with her dog. “People stop to pet Reesee, and they’ll ask for a playdate with their dog and give me their number,” she says. “I feel so connected to my neighborhood now.”
As a physician specializing in lifestyle medicine, Beth is well aware that any form of connection—whether to nature, animals, or other people—is one of the keys to happiness and healthy aging. “There’s research that shows socializing with others can add years to your life,” she notes, “and dogs offer that opportunity for socialization each day, especially if you go to a dog park or walk your dog in a neighborhood. In addition, walks in and of themselves are so good for you and for your dog both physically and emotionally. I firmly believe that getting a dog is one of the best things you can do for your health.”
Can you afford to own a dog? First, there is the cost of buying the dog. If you choose a purebred puppy, the cost can be quite high, possibly extending to several thousand dollars. And whether you adopt a purebred or a pound puppy, there are food and veterinary care bills to consider. A puppy, for instance, will need a battery of vaccinations and most likely neutering or spaying. A large dog will require more food. Some dogs are prone to health problems. Golden retrievers, for instance, have a high risk for a degenerative orthopedic condition known as hip dysplasia, as well as cancer and seizures. Many dogs over their lifetimes will require emergency veterinary care or surgery after having eaten something they shouldn’t have, getting into a fight with another dog, or breaking a bone. While you can purchase pet insurance to cover some of the cost, it typically doesn’t cover inborn conditions, and veterinary bills can quickly add up.
Dogs come in all sizes and shapes; thick and thin coats of fur; various colors from tan to brown to black and white, and all mixes in between; with different personalities, temperaments, and activity requirements. The American Kennel Club (AKC) recognizes 178 breeds of dogs and groups them into seven categories, based on the qualities for which they were developed. While the categories are helpful to consider when you’re looking for a dog to adopt, be sure to investigate specific breeds thoroughly to get the best picture of the breed’s nature and personality. You can do your research using the AKC website’s “Breeds” feature (www.akc.org/breeds/index.cfm), as well as by Googling specific breeds.
Top 10 dog breeds in the United States
For the 23rd year in a row, the American Kennel Club in 2013 designated Labs the most popular breed in this country, based on the number of people who report owning these dogs.
1. Labrador retriever
2. German shepherd
3. golden retriever
6. Yorkshire terrier
Source: The American Kennel Club, 2013.
Herding dogs. These dogs, such as the iconic Border collie and sheepdog, have a strong instinct to control the movement of people and animals—by staring, barking, nipping at heels, or patrolling—as if they were back on the farm. They are easy to train, intelligent, and good companions but need a lot of exercise.
Herding breeds include Australian cattle dog, Australian shepherd, bearded collie, beauceron, Belgian Malinois, Belgian sheepdog, Belgian Tervuren, Border collie, Bouvier des Flandres, briard, Canaan dog, Cardigan Welsh corgi, Entlebucher mountain dog, Finnish lapphund, German shepherd, Icelandic sheepdog, Norwegian buhund, Old English sheepdog, Pembroke Welsh corgi, Polish lowland sheepdog, puli, Pyrenean shepherd, Shetland sheepdog, and Swedish vallhund.
Hounds. Dogs in this group tend to have pleasant, sociable personalities but may be stubborn and uninterested in obedience training. They excel at hunting by smell or sight and typically have great stamina and an instinct to stray (beagles, basset hounds, and black-and-tan coonhounds are notorious for this). And some hounds may bay and howl, which can be funny or irksome, depending on your perspective.
Hound breeds include Afghan hound, American English coonhound, American foxhound, basenji, basset hound, beagle, black-and-tan coonhound, bloodhound, bluetick coonhound, borzoi, dachshund, English foxhound, greyhound, harrier, Ibizan hound, Irish wolfhound, Norwegian elkhound, otterhound, petit basset griffon Vendéen, pharaoh hound, plott, Portuguese podengo pequeno, redbone coonhound, Rhodesian ridgeback, saluki, Scottish deerhound, treeing walker coonhound, and whippet.
Non-sporting dogs. This is a catchall category for dogs that don’t fit readily into the other AKC dog groups, so these dogs range widely in size, appearance, and temperament.
Non-sporting breeds include American Eskimo dog, bichon frise, Boston terrier, bulldog, Chinese shar-pei, chow chow, dalmatian, Finnish spitz, French bulldog, keeshond, Lhasa apso, löwehen, Norwegian lundehund, poodle, schipperke, Shiba Inu, Tibetan spaniel, Tibetan terrier, and xoloitzcuintli.
Sporting dogs. These dogs, as their group name implies, are active animals that enjoy running, swimming, and being outdoors. They were bred as hunting dogs, to help people find and flush out fowl, and, in the case of retrievers, bring back game that has been downed by hunters (or, in everyday life, balls and toys that have been thrown by their human companions). They usually have wonderful personalities—one of the reasons Labrador and golden retrievers continually make the list of most popular dogs in America—and are very alert, but they can be hyper if they don’t get enough exercise.
Sporting breeds include American water spaniel, boykin spaniel, Brittany, Chesapeake Bay retriever, clumber spaniel, cocker spaniel, curly-coated retriever, English cocker spaniel, English setter, English springer spaniel, field spaniel, flat-coated retriever, German shorthaired pointer, German wirehaired pointer, golden retriever, Gordon setter, Irish red and white setter, Irish setter, Irish water spaniel, Labrador retriever, Nova Scotia duck tolling retriever, pointer, spinone Italiano, Sussex spaniel, vizsla, Weimaraner, Welsh springer spaniel, and wirehaired pointing griffon.
Terriers. Spunky and tough are the words that come to mind when considering the terrier group. Ranging in size from small (such as the cairn terrier) to large (the Airedale terrier), these dogs were originally bred to kill rodents and are typically energetic, wiry, and quite delightful with people. They are also scrappy—which means they don’t always get along well with other dogs and they may not be good dog-park material.
Terrier breeds include Airedale terrier, American Staffordshire terrier, Australian terrier, Bedlington terrier, Border terrier, bull terrier, cairn terrier, Cesky terrier, Dandie Dinmont terrier, Glen of Imaal terrier, Irish terrier, Kerry blue terrier, Lakeland terrier, Manchester terrier, miniature bull terrier, miniature schnauzer, Norfolk terrier, Norwich terrier, Parson Russell terrier, rat terrier, Russell terrier, Scottish terrier, Sealyham terrier, Skye terrier, smooth fox terrier, soft-coated wheaten terrier, Staffordshire bull terrier, Welsh terrier, West Highland white terrier, and wire fox terrier.
Toy breeds. These smaller dogs—many the miniatures of larger-size breeds—were created to bring delight to humans. Pugs, for instance, are great clowns and love to be the center of attention. Toy breeds often believe they are bigger than they are and won’t back down in a fight. They can be barkers and biters but also wonderful lapdogs and great companions, especially for apartment dwellers and people who can’t exercise strenuously (although even toy breeds need some physical activity to stay healthy).
Toy breeds include affenpinscher, Brussels griffon, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Chihuahua, Chinese crested, English toy spaniel, Havanese, Italian greyhound, Japanese chin, Maltese, Manchester terrier, miniature pinscher, papillon, Pekingese, Pomeranian, toy poodle, pug, shih tzu, silky terrier, toy fox terrier, and Yorkshire terrier.
Working dogs. These dogs are pullers, guarders, and rescuers. They are typically intelligent and great companions but tend to be on the larger side and very strong. Because of their nature and size, they may not make the best family pets.
Working breeds include Akita, Alaskan malamute, Anatolian shepherd dog, Bernese mountain dog, black Russian terrier, boxer, bullmastiff, cane corso, Chinook, Doberman pinscher, dogue de Bordeaux, German pinscher, giant schnauzer, Great Dane, Great Pyrenees, greater Swiss mountain dog, komondor, kuvasz, leonberger, mastiff, Neapolitan mastiff, Newfoundland, Portuguese water dog, rottweiler, Saint Bernard, Samoyed, Siberian husky, standard schnauzer, and Tibetan mastiff.
Mixed breeds. Fifty-three percent of all U.S. dogs—and many of the best pets available today—are mixed breeds. These dogs are often found in rescue shelters, and their parentage and even their place of origin are typically unknown. Crossbred dogs have also become quite popular over the past few years as breeders selectively mix different pure breeds for distinct traits. For instance, Labradoodles and Goldendoodles—a mix of a Labrador retriever or golden retriever and a poodle—are well-liked because they have the good nature of a retriever, but the intelligence and low-shedding coat of a poodle. Cockapoos—a mix of a cocker spaniel and a poodle—are popular for their sweet disposition, smaller size, and nonshedding coat. Puggles—a hybrid of a pug and beagle—typically have a modified pug look, a lot of energy, and a great personality. The American Canine Hybrid Club recognizes hundreds of “designer” mixed dog breeds.
DNA tests requiring a cheek swab or a blood sample have been developed to analyze a dog’s mix of breeds and are readily available online. These tests can be used by adoption agencies to help predict temperament and genetic health risks, but their accuracy is unclear. The tests are used most often by pet owners who simply want to know the answer to the eternal question: “What kind of dog is that?”
Finding your dog
Dogs can be acquired through a variety of outlets. If you’re looking for a purebred dog, you want to turn to reputable breeders or breed-specific rescue organizations. For mixed breeds, sources include breeders, rescue organizations, and shelters. Organizations such as Petfinder and the AKC can help you in your search (see “Resources”).
Avoid pet store puppies. They usually come from breeders known as “puppy mills,” which abuse female dogs, keeping them continuously caged and pregnant. Puppies born in puppy mills are often prone to illness.
If at all possible, meet a puppy’s parents and assess their health before you commit. You want a pedigree that is clear of obvious health problems, such as the degenerative joint condition hip dysplasia in retrievers. Also assess the puppy itself for good health: its eyes should be clear and bright, its nose shouldn’t be running constantly, and it shouldn’t suffer from frequent diarrhea.
Shelter and rescue dogs
Shelter and rescue dogs can make wonderful pets and may be acquired for less cost than a purebred animal (and actually, you may often find purebreds at shelters). By adopting a shelter or rescue pet, you are likely saving its life: the Humane Society of the United States reports that 2.7 million dogs and cats are euthanized each year, making this the No. 1 cause of death for dogs under 2 years of age. Most of these dogs are healthy animals for whom homes can’t be found.
Despite their many wonderful attributes, only 20% of dog owners get their pets from animal shelters. Shelter and rescue dogs may be overlooked by prospective dog owners because they suffer from the stigma of having been rejected by a previous owner. Often, though, dogs wind up in shelters through no fault of their own: their owners may die, become disabled, or have to move to a place that doesn’t allow dogs. They may have been adopted by people who weren’t prepared to care for them, couldn’t afford them, had too many pets, or did not make a good match. Less frequently, dogs are relinquished to shelters because of biting or other negative behaviors; if these animals continue to be aggressive, they are typically euthanized rather than adopted out.
In an effort to boost adoption rates and lower pet return rates, shelter organizations and animal advocacy groups have developed temperament tests for dogs. The ASPCA, for instance, has created color-coded Canine-ality and Puppy-ality tests that evaluate a dog’s level of friendliness and sociability, playfulness, energy, ability to focus, motivation, and people manners (www.aspca.org/adopt/meet-your-match). After coming to a shelter, a dog is assessed by the shelter staff and assigned a green, orange, or purple color. When potential owners visit, they are asked to fill out a Dog Adopter Survey, which highlights whether they match best with a green, orange, or purple dog. Armed with their survey results, the people go off into the kennels to meet their match. While prospective dog parents don’t have to adhere to the color-coding system, the assessments give them some insight into how a particular dog will behave in their home.
Assessing a puppy or dog
When you find a puppy or dog you like, spend some time on the floor together playing tug-of-war or catch. Get an idea of how easy to engage she is, how alert and curious, how stubborn or easygoing, how hyper or calm. Find out whether she likes to be touched, petted, and held. If you can, take her for a walk to observe her manners and see how comfortable she is around other people and pets. Also ask the shelter staff or breeder about her history and behavior.
How to be a responsible dog owner
Once you decide to get a dog, you’ll need to make some preparations and acquire some basic equipment and supplies. As good as dogs are for people’s health, they are not there just to make us healthier. They, too, have needs for a balanced diet, exercise, and shelter in order to ensure their health. In addition, dogs are extremely social animals that thrive on interaction—whether their companions are humans, dogs, cats, or other animals. A responsible owner will fulfill all these needs.
Obviously, you will need dog food (see the Special Section, “Nutrition guidelines for dogs” for recommendations). In addition, you will need the following:
Feeding and water bowls. You will need to buy two metal, plastic, or glass bowls for your pet—one that you will keep filled with fresh water and another for food.
Collars and harnesses. Today’s dog collars often make a fashion statement, coming in an ever-widening array of colors and patterns to suit your dog’s “style.” Collars can be made of nylon or leather, and can be fastened with a snap or a buckle. (Snap collars can open easily and may be less secure than buckle collars on strong dogs.) They should be sized to your dog’s neck—loose, but not so loose that they can slide over the dog’s head.
Collars typically don’t give you a lot of control over an excitable or aggressive dog, and they don’t prevent a dog from pulling as you’re walking. Choke collars—metal collars that tighten around the dog’s neck when it pulls—are not recommended as they can cause choking, coughing, and gagging and can injure the dog’s windpipe. Likewise, prong collars, another type of metal collar that has spikes on the inside that press into the dog’s neck when he pulls, are potentially injurious.
Newer types of collars include the Martingale, which gets smaller when the dog pulls but doesn’t completely tighten around the neck, and head collars, which look like halters used on horses; they go around the dog’s muzzle and over the head and help to reduce pulling. The Halti and the Gentle Leader are the most common types of head collars. Both are very useful for handling strong dogs that pull on a leash—although proper obedience training is a far more important tool to reduce that behavior than any collar or harness (see “Teaching a dog to heel”).
Many people prefer harnesses to collars because they fit over the upper body and allow you to use more than just the neck to correct the dog. Usually you attach a leash to a harness at the back. However, a popular harness called the Easy Walk, which has a leash attachment at the chest, helps to stop the dog from pulling by steering him to the side when you try to control him, which discourages him from straining at the leash.
Teaching a dog to heel
Once they get the hang of it, most dogs are overjoyed to have their collar hooked to a leash, because it means they’ll be going outside with you. Walking gently in tandem with you, however, is often another thing, especially when a puppy or strong young dog sees a squirrel, encounters another dog, attempts to greet a person, or finds a richly odiferous patch of grass to smell. You may end up being pulled by the dog, which is more than unpleasant; an unruly dog on a walk can cause injury to its walker, or just make it a chore to go for a walk, which is counterproductive to your desire to exercise with your pet. That’s why it’s so important to invest the time in teaching your dog to heel properly. It’s not a fun thing to do, and it can be difficult to teach, but it is a critically important skill for you and your dog to master for a harmonious life together.
Here are the basics of gently teaching your dog to heel:
Eventually, the goal is to have your dog walk with you without pulling on the leash. She doesn’t need to always be close to your left side in the traditional heeling position—she just needs to know how to walk beside you when you want her to.
Tags and microchipping. Collars and harnesses are designed so you can hang an identifying tag on them in case your dog gets lost; the tag should contain the dog’s name and your name and telephone number. In addition, you are required to hang tags that show the dog is licensed by your town or city and is up to date with rabies inoculations. You might also consider having your vet inject a microchip with identifying information under your pet’s skin in case the collar or tags come off; the cost is typically under $50. The microchip is labeled with a number that is recorded in an international database. If a lost dog is found, the chip can be scanned and you can be contacted.
Leashes. Like collars, leashes come in many varieties, colors, and materials, such as nylon, leather, and metal. Most types and standard lengths work well for dog owners. One type that is not recommended except for the smallest dogs is the retractable leash, as the extendable cord can cause injury to people, in the form of cord burns, finger injuries, and falls resulting from cords tangling around people’s legs.
Toys and rawhides. Dogs need mental stimulation, and they love to gnaw on things, so it’s a good idea to buy them some toys so they don’t end up chewing on shoes, walls, or furniture. Toys that can engage and distract them include balls; squeak, pull, and rope toys; chew toys that stimulate their gums; stuffed animals they can fling around like downed prey and rip the stuffing out of; Kong toys that you can put treats in; interactive puzzles; and Frisbees. Dogs also love treats that can be chewed until they are softened and swallowed in large pieces, such as rawhides, pigs’ ears, and Greenies. If you give your dog these treats, monitor him closely and take the chew away if he starts to tear off pieces that could choke him. Be aware that many things that dogs commonly chew on (such as tennis balls or sterilized large cow bones) are either very abrasive to the teeth or can break the teeth when dogs bite them. Consult your veterinarian for ideas for safe chew toys, and always supervise your dog when she is playing with toys. Never give him human toys with parts he can swallow, such as plastic eyes.
A crate or dog bed. A puppy should initially be confined to a crate or a room with washable flooring, until you can trust him not to eliminate overnight. This can take several months. A crate where the dog can sleep can be an excellent tool during housetraining, since dogs don’t like to soil where they sleep. The crate can also provide a safe haven for the dog when there is too much activity in the house or you have to be out and can’t trust the dog to behave. Plus, getting the dog used to sleeping in a crate prepares your dog for car and plane travel in a carrier, as well as being boarded in a kennel.
Some people may equate crates with cages, but there is a long history of humane use of crates in homes—and many dogs love to be in their safe, enclosed dens. In particular, you will likely want to crate a puppy that is still too young to be trusted in your home alone.
To form a positive association in the dog’s mind, do not make crating a punishment for bad behavior and do not leave the dog in the crate for hours on end while everyone is up and about. Rather, the crate should be associated with nap time, treats, and toys. To make it more appealing and allow the dog to den, outfit the crate with a soft blanket or dog bed.
If you prefer, you can put up a baby gate to isolate your dog in a kitchen or bathroom with a dog bed.
The American Animal Hospital Association and other veterinary organizations recommend check-ups for dogs at least once a year in order to catch canine diseases early, when they are easiest to treat. The typical annual vet bill for a wellness visit runs about $230, depending on where you live. Pet insurance may be worth investigating to pay for preventive care, injuries, and illnesses, but policies tend to exclude pre-existing conditions and genetic problems that are common to certain breeds (such as hip dysplasia in retrievers). If you decide to acquire insurance, you’ll want to do it when your dog is a puppy, before the dog develops conditions that would be excluded.
While it’s preferable to take your pet to a private vet for a comprehensive evaluation, pet store chains and animal shelters offer lower-cost care. And if you can’t afford to buy pet medications through your vet, you can try online pharmacies or buy generic products (see “Pet catalogs and online resources”).
Pet catalogs and online resources
When you need to stock up on pet supplies, you can always visit your local supermarket, discount store, or pet store, but you can find an even greater range of products—often at cheaper prices—through pet catalogs and online retailers such as these:
Doctors Foster and Smith
In the Company of Dogs
Be careful which websites and outlets you buy pet medications from, as they may not be the real thing. For instance, don’t buy from foreign pharmacies that don’t require a prescription for medications that are controlled in the United States, such as heartworm preventives and canine nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve pain. These products could lack potency or harm your pet.
Order only from a pharmacy that is accredited as a Veterinary-Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Site: look for the phrase “Vet-VIPPS accredited pharmacy.” Or ask your veterinary office if it uses an Internet pharmacy service that you can order from directly with a prescription.
Here are some reputable sites:
Doctors Foster and Smith Pet Pharmacy
Vet Rx Direct
Assessment of dental and medical health and a body condition score are essential elements of the annual wellness examination. Common illnesses seen among dogs are allergies, arthritis, bruises, cancer, dental disease, diabetes, fungal ear infections, obesity, skin conditions, underactive thyroid, urinary tract infections, and vomiting and diarrhea.
You will be asked to bring a stool sample to the visit so it can be analyzed for gastrointestinal parasites such as worms. Your dog will also receive a standard annual test called the 4DX blood panel, which checks for heartworm (a potentially deadly infection of the heart and lungs transmitted to dogs by mosquitoes) and tick-borne illnesses (Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis). If you live in an area of the country where ticks are prevalent, your vet might suggest use of preventive products such as Frontline Plus or K9 Advantix II to kill and repel ticks, mosquitoes, and fleas. These products come in a liquid form that is applied between the dog’s shoulder blades on a monthly basis during tick season. Oral monthly medications that control internal parasites and fleas are also available and may be safer than topical products if you have cats or babies in your household. (These medications don’t control ticks, however, so you’ll still need to use a tick preventive on your dog.) It’s best to discuss the available methods of parasite control with your veterinarian so he or she can help you decide on the best balance of safety and effectiveness for you, your dog, and your family.
Vaccines are another crucial reason to take your dog to the vet. All dogs should be immunized for rabies, canine distemper virus, canine parvovirus, and canine adenovirus-2 (hepatitis). The intervals for administering these vaccines have been extended from one year to three or more years, as vets have recognized that the immunity from these shots lasts longer than previously believed. Optional vaccines are available to reduce the risk of Lyme disease; kennel cough (bordetella), a respiratory virus that is contagious among dogs; coronavirus, a gastrointestinal virus that spreads through feces; and leptospirosis, which can be acquired if dogs drink standing water outside. You should talk to your vet about whether your dog will benefit from these vaccinations.
You should consider spaying or neutering your dog, usually as a puppy, unless you plan to breed him or her. Some shelters sterilize puppies before they allow them to be adopted, or obligate a potential owner to do so as part of the adoption agreement, with the goal of reducing the unwanted pet population and euthanasia of healthy animals. In females, spaying means you won’t have to deal with her heat cycles during breeding season, which can be messy, prompt her to howl, and attract unwanted male dog attention. Spaying also results in a longer life span for females, as it lowers the risk of breast cancer. Neutering has a similar health benefit for males, reducing the incidence of prostate enlargement and infection; it also makes them less likely to roam and reduces aggressive behavior.
You will need to keep a file of your dog’s vaccinations, spay or neuter status, and health issues. Local governments typically require that dogs be registered with the town or city, and in order to obtain a dog license, owners need to provide proof of inoculation against rabies. A licensing discount is usually offered for pets that have been spayed or neutered.
Emergency signs and symptoms that warrant a trip to the vet or ER
Don’t waste time if your dog suffers an injury, swallows a poisonous substance, or shows any of the following signs and symptoms—you could be dealing with a life-threatening illness:
Many human medications are dangerous to dogs. In particular, never give your dog the following:
Dogs in cars
Gone are the days when dogs could roam free in cars. Just like children, they should be restrained so they don’t go through the windshield if an accident occurs or otherwise injure themselves if you have to slam on the brakes. Many stores and catalogs offer dog harnesses that integrate with your car’s seat belt. They allow the dog a little range of motion but not so much that she’s crawling into your lap.
And as cute as it looks, it’s not a good idea to let your dog hang his head out the window and feel the breeze—he could get debris in his eyes or otherwise injure himself.
It’s also not wise to let dogs sit in the front seat. Some dogs become so excited in the car that they crawl into the driver’s lap. Sometimes they’ll even squirm into the floor area beneath your feet when you’re driving, interfering with your ability to drive safely. You can install a crate or divider to keep your dog in the back of a station wagon or SUV. (You also probably want to throw an old blanket or specially designed dog cover on the back seat to protect it from damage, dirt, and shedding.)
Finally, it is unsafe—and, in some states, illegal—to allow a dog to ride unrestrained in the back of a pickup truck.
Providing for your dog while you’re at work
Dogs are such social animals that they don’t thrive when left to their own devices. There are several ways to help them cope. Leave a TV or radio on and some dog toys to keep the dog company. If you can’t come home from work yourself at lunchtime, hire a dog walker, or sign up for doggie daycare. Keep to a regular schedule, so your dog knows when to expect to go out, to eat meals, and to snuggle with you.
Bringing your dog to work
One way to get around leaving your dog alone all day is to inquire about bringing her to your workplace. According to a survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association, 3% of dog owners (about 1.4 million) have taken their dogs to work with them. Employers as diverse as Amazon.com, Bank of America, Ben & Jerry’s, Dogswell, and Petco allow dogs in the workplace. The reason: employers are finding that employees with dogs are happier and less stressed throughout the day. The first study investigating dogs in the office, published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management in 2012, found that people who brought their dogs to work had significantly lower stress levels and were more satisfied with their jobs throughout the day than people who didn’t own dogs and those who owned dogs but left them at home.
The downside: an office may not be pet-friendly, particularly if some employees have allergies to dogs or are afraid of dogs, in which case allowing pets could create a hostile work environment. The office might have to have a vote about allowing dogs at work, and might need to separate employees with dogs from those who dislike or can’t tolerate the animals.
There’s also the issue of the dogs themselves. Not all dogs are suitable for the workplace. They must be people-friendly, extremely obedient and housebroken, healthy, and not prone to barking or growling. Most offices will also require that dogs be leashed at all times.
Raising a well-behaved dog
An out-of-control dog can be stressful for both the owner and the dog himself. To raise a well-behaved dog, it’s important for people to understand how dogs think and feel. In recent years, researchers and dog behaviorists have begun to figure out what’s going on inside the head of a dog. For one thing, it’s now recognized that a dog’s mind is comparable to that of a toddler between ages 2 and 3. Dogs don’t understand full sentences, but they can learn to comprehend up to 200 words, including essential commands such as “sit,” “stay,” and “come.” (Of course, too, almost every domesticated dog learns key words such as “walk,” “treat,” “ball,” and “good dog.”) They can even learn to count up to 4 or 5. They react to inflections, emotions, and gestures, and they can associate tasks with words and numbers. For instance, some dogs can be taught to distinguish among their toys, so they bring you a specific one when you ask for it. Other dogs have been bred to perform specific tasks, such as herd sheep or kill vermin. They also have a good memory for directions.
The more words and commands a dog can understand and the more intelligent she is, the better she will bond with her owner. Dog intelligence varies by breed: poodles and Border collies are typically cited as being the most intelligent breeds (meaning most trainable), while beagles and basset hounds are rated the least trainable. And while the ability to learn new tricks does slow with age, dogs can continue to learn throughout their lives if they are mentally, physically, and socially engaged.
Emotionally, dogs are simple beings. Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and author of The Intelligence of Dogs, posits that dogs can feel basic emotions of joy, fear, anger, disgust, and love, just as a 2½-year-old child can; other researchers believe that dogs can feel more advanced emotions, such as shame and jealousy. Dogs are also geniuses at reading our emotions. In a fascinating brain scan study, Hungarian researchers taught 11 dogs to lie still in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine while they were exposed to 200 different sounds such as whining, crying, laughing, and barking. The investigators found that certain areas lit up in dogs’ brains in response to these sounds—and a similar thing happened when 22 humans were tested. However, dogs were slightly more attuned to human voices than people were to dog vocalizations, which underscores how closely dogs observe us.
All dogs need to be taught key commands, for both their safety and yours: “sit,” “stay,” “come,” “down,” “off,” “heel,” and “no” are the major commands. Dogs also need to be socialized between 6 and 14 weeks of age so they get along well with other dogs and people. And they shouldn’t be let off leash in open outdoor areas until you are absolutely sure they will come when you call them. Often, the best way for your dog to learn these skills and interact with other dogs in a safe environment is for you to take your canine companion to obedience schools (or, as some call them, people training for dogs) and puppy kindergarten.
Training should be based on positive reinforcement—giving the dog a treat, praising her, or stroking her to affirm she is a “good dog”—when she does as you wish. Punishing a dog—or kicking, hitting, or yelling—is significantly less successful than positive methods, since dogs have an innate desire to please people and they learn best when they are not fearful or anxious. And if you are slow to punish, even by a few seconds, say, if a dog urinates in the house, the dog won’t understand what she did wrong and she won’t learn not to do it again in the future (see “Housetraining”). Likewise, if you yell or swat at a dog that comes to you after disobeying your call for several minutes, in the future the dog will associate coming to you with punishment. Instead, you must reward the dog for doing what you wished, even if it occurred after you wished, and continue training the dog to do what you want in the first place.
Clicker training is a popular, simple, and effective method of obedience training. You buy a plastic device with a metal strip on it that, when pressed, makes a clicking sound. You work with your dog to associate the sound of the clicker with the immediate delivery of a treat and then progress from there to teaching her to associate the sound of the clicker with a desired behavior, such as sit, stay, or heel. In the dog’s mind, the sound means “treat,” so she will perform the behavior at the sound of the clicker in order to receive her reward. Gradually, you can scale back on giving treats every time. For more information on clicker training and supplies, visit the websites Karen Pryor Clicker Training (www.clickertraining.com) and Click & Treat (www.clickandtreat.com).
Obedience training takes patience and practice over many months and even a lifetime, but it is well worth the effort you invest. A well-trained dog makes your life with your canine companion both safer and much more enjoyable.
Training your dog not to eliminate in the house takes some patience and effort. Puppies typically need to urinate every four or five hours, and most don’t develop good control of their bladder and bowels until 4 to 6 months of age.
The best way to housebreak your puppy is to adopt a regular eating, sleeping, and walking schedule. You’ll want to supervise the puppy while he’s playing and watch for signs that he has to go—take him out if he starts to walk in circles, for instance, sniffs at areas he’s previously eliminated in, or looks over at the door. After you feed him, take him out immediately. He should be confined to his crate (but not for longer than a couple of hours at a time) or a small area such as the kitchen or bathroom until he can control himself.
It’s highly recommended that you teach your dog a catch phrase to prompt elimination such as “time to go” or “do your business.” On cold, windy nights or days when you don’t feel well, you will be grateful for your foresight at teaching your dog to eliminate on command. Don’t play outside with the puppy when you’re trying to teach him to eliminate outside; he will get confused about the purpose of the outing.
Always praise your puppy for eliminating outside. Positive reinforcement of desired behaviors is the best tool you have at your disposal for raising a wonderful, obedient dog. On the other hand, don’t scold him if he has an accident—he won’t understand, and he may become fearful, which could hinder housebreaking and training. If you catch him in the act, however, clap your hands and say “hey!” loudly to interrupt him. Then immediately take him outside. If he eliminates there, praise him.
Keeping dogs off furniture … or not
Until your dog is housebroken, she should sleep in a crate or confined area (see “A crate or dog bed”). But before you even bring the dog home, you should think about where you ultimately want your dog to sleep and if you want to allow her to climb up on furniture. Once you allow a puppy to sleep with you in your bed or sit next to you on the couch, it can be difficult and confusing to retrain the dog.
Furthermore, you should be aware that sleeping with your dog or letting him on the sofa opens you and your family up to the possibility of tick sharing (see “Are there risks to dog ownership?”). Tick-borne Lyme disease is on the rise, so it’s important to perform regular tick checks of your dog, yourself, and family members, and to take other steps to control ticks (see “Protect yourself from tick-borne infections”, and “Veterinary care”).
Are there risks to dog ownership?
There’s no question: dogs can be dirty animals. They like to run through the woods, swim in streams, roll in the dirt (and in unidentifiable, smelly decaying stuff), run with filthy balls and toys in their mouths, and eat things they shouldn’t. Since dogs live so closely with humans, often even sharing their couches and beds, it’s important to be aware of the risk of transmission of certain diseases—particularly if you have a compromised immune system, as do people with HIV/AIDS, those who have had organ transplants, and people on drugs that weaken their immunity to infections. Infants and children under age 5 are also at heightened risk of getting sick if exposed to certain dog-transmitted illnesses. Zoonosis, as animal transmission of diseases to humans is called, is also one of the reasons it’s so important to visit a vet regularly to diagnose, prevent, and treat potentially contagious problems early.
First on the list of problems are ticks, which can harbor Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, and other illnesses. This is why it’s so important to check your dog (and yourself) for ticks when you come inside from a walk, and follow a tick prevention program if you live in an area where ticks are prevalent (see “Protect yourself from tick-borne infections,” and “Veterinary care”).
The fungus ringworm, which causes rashes, can be transmitted from your dog to you by direct contact. Be sure to have your vet examine any skin lesions that develop on your dog.
You also want to protect yourself from your dog’s feces, which can harbor such intestinal parasites as giardia and roundworm. Puppies’ feces can carry Campylobacter bacteria, which can cause diarrhea in people. After picking dog feces up with a bag or pooper scooper, always dispose of the waste promptly and wash your hands thoroughly to prevent transmission of parasites. Also wash your hands after petting or grooming your dog and if your dog licks you—especially before you touch food.
There is also a risk of being pulled by or falling over a dog, so it’s important to train your dog to heel and not to get in your way or topple you or others over.
Bites are another risk. Most non-aggressive dogs are prone to biting only when they feel threatened or scared. That’s why it’s important to keep them in situations that suit their personalities. A high-strung Chihuahua or Boston terrier that is used to living alone with an elderly grandmother might bite children if they invade her space and are running around or approach the dog in an aggressive way. Rabies can be transmitted by bites from animals that are not vaccinated against this virus.
Another caution is whether you will be able to sleep soundly with your dog on the bed. It’s important for adults to receive seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night for a host of reasons, including weight maintenance. This can be difficult if a dog is sleeping on the bed or does not sleep through the night. Thus, training the dog to rest quietly from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. would be beneficial for all. This is another reason why keeping your dog active and walking him during the day is so important—a well-exercised dog tends to sleep soundly.
To train a dog not to climb up on furniture, you must teach him the command “off” when he is still a puppy or when you first bring him home. Every time he tries to get on the furniture, tell him “off” and show him what you mean. Most dogs quickly understand.
Soothing the anxious hound
Because of a combination of their genetics and their experiences, today’s dogs seem to be as anxiety-prone as their human counterparts, which can lead to uncontrollable shaking, panting, pacing, licking, and even vomiting and diarrhea. Some dogs tremble and hide at the sound of thunderstorms or fireworks, others are destructive and noisy when left alone, while still others are so fearful that they lash out aggressively at people or other pets.
The best way to prevent anxiety is to make sure your dog gets enough exercise to reduce his stress level and tire him out. Another strategy is to expose your dog early in life to all kinds of sights, sounds, people, and pets—in other words, socialize him to set up positive associations with new experiences. Also, don’t leave your dog alone for more than eight hours a day; that’s about the maximum an adult dog can last without needing to eliminate (puppies and older or sick dogs need to be taken out more frequently). You might also try these remedies:
Positive reconditioning. Some breeds, such as Chihuahuas and German shepherds, are naturally high-strung, while others, such as pugs and King Charles spaniels, are notoriously bold and less likely to be anxious. Others develop anxieties and phobias as they go through life, but you can retrain them to be less fearful. First, identify the things that freak your dog out. Common culprits include loud noises, the vacuum cleaner, car rides, visits to the vet or groomer, and being left alone. Next, slowly expose your pet to the stressor at a very low level, so low that it doesn’t provoke the fear response and you can begin to create a new positive association, such as giving him a treat. Be patient: this type of behavior modification takes time and practice. Above all, don’t pressure or punish a fearful dog. Instead, use a happy voice, treats, and play to change anxious behaviors.
A veterinary behavior specialist. You can see a veterinarian who is board-certified in behavioral medicine or who has a graduate degree in animal behavior. These professionals are available for office visits or home visits, and some will do phone consultations. To find a specialist, consult the online directories provided by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists (www.dacvb.org) and the Animal Behavior Society (www.animalbehavior.org).
The Thundershirt. This remedy is simple but ingenious—a close-fitting dog shirt. A survey conducted by the manufacturer and completed by 2,000 dog owners shows the Thundershirt calms more than 80% of dogs that are anxious, fearful, or overexcited, often with just one wearing. The Thundershirt works along the same principle as swaddling an infant: being bundled up and having constant pressure on the torso makes the dog feel safe and protected. The shirt comes in a variety of sizes and has adjustable Velcro straps to secure it around the dog’s chest and belly. The shirt is available online at www.thundershirt.com and at pet stores.
Dog tunes. Music can be calming for humans and dogs alike. For example, Through a Dog’s Ear is a book and a series of classical music CDs designed by Joshua Leeds, a psychoacoustic expert, and Susan Wagner, a veterinary neurologist, to soothe your dog at home and in the car. In a research trial, their music for dogs, defined by slow tempos and simple arrangements, was shown to reduce anxious behavior by 70%.
Dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP). This odorless substance mimics the chemical emitted by a mother dog when her puppies are nursing. You can purchase a DAP collar from your veterinarian (Adaptil) or a pheromone dispenser or spray at pet stores (Comfort Zone). Studies conducted by DAP manufacturers show that exposure to the pheromone can reduce trembling, panting, and hiding behaviors in dogs that are afraid of loud noises, and minimize destructive behavior such as urinating inside the house, chewing, and digging.
Anxiety medications. Some dogs may require drugs, such as prescription anti-anxiety medications, to correct brain chemical imbalances that cause fearful behavior. In a study of Reconcile, a veterinary formulation of fluoxetine (the active ingredient used in the human antidepressant drug Prozac), the manufacturer found that 73% of dogs with separation anxiety improved within eight weeks of taking the chewable tablets and starting a behavior modification program.
Another option that may take your dog’s anxiety down a notch is the amino acid L-theanine, sold through veterinarians as Anxitane. A manufacturer’s study showed Anxitane reduced nervousness in over 64% of dogs given daily supplements for two months.
Probiotics. For dogs that suffer from stomach upset and loose stools, which may be related to stressful situations and an anxiety-prone disposition, dog-specific probiotic supplements such as FortiFlora and Proviable-DC may help. Both products are available only through veterinarians and contain naturally occurring, live, “good” bacteria that are thought to balance the intestinal environment and promote digestive health.
Grieving a loss
Dogs live an average of 10 years, with a range of 6 to 14 years depending on their breed, size (smaller dogs live longer than big dogs), health status, and lifestyle. That means that even the longest-lived dogs won’t span a human’s lifetime. Because a dog is a cherished member of the family, the grief associated with the loss of a canine companion can be just as intense as losing a human companion—yet other people may minimize your loss. Many people don’t realize how strong the dog-owner bond can be. Others simply can’t fathom it and may even belittle your feelings. Yet you lost a caring, close companion and all the pleasurable routines you shared.
It is important to acknowledge your grief when your dog passes away whether other people do or not. The death of a pet can trigger many emotions. You may feel sadness, loneliness, or possibly relief that a very ill animal is no longer suffering. But regardless of the reason for the loss, it is normal to experience feelings of grief, possibly quite intensely and for a long time. Some of the tips below may be helpful.
Reach out. If you know someone else who has lost a well-loved pet, talk with him or her about your loss. Many veterinary schools offer pet-loss support hotlines and may be able to recommend support groups as well. An online support group is available at www.petloss.com, which holds a weekly candlelighting ceremony and has links to other helpful sites. You can also contact a free pet loss grief hotline, such as Tufts University’s Pet Loss Support Line at 508-839-7966 or the Penn Vet Pet Grief Support Hotline at 215-898-4556. Pet Partners (www.petpartners.org) offers links to other groups and resources associated with pet loss and bereavement that you may find of value.
Mourn the loss. Be good to yourself. Do what feels comforting, and allow yourself time to recover from the loss. Express your feelings. Hold a memorial service or funeral, or bury your pet at a pet cemetery. Tell children truthfully about the death rather than casting your pet as lost or “put to sleep.”
Remember the fun. What did you enjoy most about your pet? What did your pet love to do with you? Celebrate and remember all of the positive things your pet brought to your life. Consider memorializing your pet through donations to organizations devoted to pets and their health.
Seek help if you need it. Mental health professionals don’t consider pet grief pathological unless it exceeds six to 12 months and interferes with a person’s ability to function. If you find yourself grieving severely—with persistent feelings of disabling sadness or suicidal thoughts and sleep disturbances, for instance—it is vital that you see a health care professional earlier rather than later to be evaluated for depression and treated if necessary.
Some people wish to replace a dog quickly; the ASPCA recommends waiting at least a month to do so to work through your feelings. This is a very personal decision and needs to be based on how you and your family members are grieving for the loss of your pet. Some people get another dog right away as a distraction from grief, while other people need more time before they can welcome a new pet into their homes.
American Animal Hospital Association
12575 Bayaud Ave.
Lakewood, CO 80228
This organization accredits animal hospitals across the United States. The AAHA website offers a search function for accredited hospitals, as well as educational material.
American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
College of Veterinary Medicine, 4474 TAMU
Texas A&M University
College Station, TX 77843
You can locate expert dog behaviorists through this professional organization’s website to help you deal with dog behavior issues. The site also includes educational articles on responsible pet ownership and advice on selecting a dog trainer.
American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association
P.O. Box 630
Abingdon, MD 21009
This organization focuses on holistic, alternative, and complementary medical treatment of pets. The website contains
a search feature to locate a holistic vet in your area.
American Humane Association
1400 16th St. NW, Suite 360
Washington, DC 20036
This is an advocacy organization, the mission of which is to be “the nation’s voice for the protection of children and animals.” The organization sponsors research and offers education, training, and services that contribute to the understanding and cultivation of the animal-human bond.
American Kennel Club
8051 Arco Corporate Drive, Suite 100
Raleigh, NC 27617
This organization keeps a registry of purebred dogs and holds dog shows all over the United States. Visit the AKC website for information on breeds, dog shows, and tips on caring for your dog. You can also find the names of responsible breeders and rescue dog groups through the AKC.
American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
424 E. 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128
The ASPCA was the first humane organization founded in the Western hemisphere. Since 1866, the organization has been at the forefront of efforts to safeguard animal welfare. Check out the “Pet Care” tab of the website for extensive information on keeping your pet healthy and happy.
American Veterinary Medical Association
1931 N. Madison Road, Suite 100
Schaumburg, IL 60173
This not-for-profit organization represents approximately 85,000 veterinarians. The website offers access to educational materials and tools for K–12 educators.
Association of Professional Dog Trainers
P.O. Box 1148
Greenville, SC 29602
You can search for an experienced dog trainer on this site as well as access dog care and training tips.
Best Friends Animal Society
5001 Angel Canyon Road
Kanab, UT 84741
This society operates the largest animal sanctuary in the United States and is open to the public for visits and volunteering. You can even take a dog (or cat) out of the sanctuary for a sleepover and some quality time at a pet-friendly hotel, house, or RV. Best Friends Animal Society helped pioneer the “no-kill” movement for homeless pets, runs pet adoption events all over the country, and offers low-cost spaying and neutering services in Los Angeles and Utah.
4 Paws for Ability
253 Dayton Ave.
Xenia, OH 45385
This organization trains and provides service dogs for disabled children and veterans, educates the public about the use of service dogs in public places, and assists with rescue operations.
The Good Dog Foundation
P.O. Box 1484
New York, NY 10276
The Good Dog Foundation is a leading provider of professionally trained, fully certified, and supervised volunteer therapy dog teams serving the Northeastern United States. The website provides resources for dog owners interested in certifying their dogs and for potential partner facilities interested in benefiting from the free services provided by Good Dog teams.
Humane Society of the United States
2100 L St. NW
Washington, D.C. 20037
This organization provides support for shelters and rescue groups, engages in animal rescue and disaster response, runs mobile veterinary clinics, advocates for animals, and provides information.
International Association of Canine Professionals
P.O. Box 928
Lampasas, TX 76550
This group’s website includes listings of professional trainers, groomers, vets, pet sitters, dog walkers, and kennel owners.
National Association of Dog Obedience Instructors
7910 Picador Drive
Houston, TX 77083
This organization’s website hosts a searchable database of certified dog obedience instructors nationwide.
Pet Partners (formerly The Delta Society)
875 12th Ave. NE, #101
Bellevue, WA 98005
This nonprofit organization is devoted to improving people’s lives through connection with therapy, service, and companion animals and research about the human-animal bond.
This service provides a searchable online database of pets that need homes. It supplies links to over 13,000 animal shelters and adoption organizations in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Therapy Dogs United
1940 W. 8th St.
Erie, PA 16505
This public charity certifies therapy dogs and offers them to hospitals, rehabilitation and hospice facilities, schools, senior centers, nursing communities, and homeless shelters to assist with physical therapy and provide support and companionship.
Warrior Canine Connection
23222 Georgia Ave.
Brookeville, MD 20833
This group teaches service members and veterans with combat stress to train service dogs for fellow wounded warriors.
Decoding Your Dog
The American College of Veterinary Behaviorists
Debra F. Horwitz, D.V.M., D.A.C.V.B., and John Ciribassi, D.V.M., D.A.C.V.B., with Steve Dale (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014)
This authorative guide from board-certified veterinary behaviorists explains common dog behaviors and how to prevent or change unwanted behaviors through positive training methods.
The Dog Encyclopedia: The Definitive Visual Guide
Kim Dennis-Bryan, Ph.D.
(DK Books, 2013)
As the title of this book suggests, it is both an encyclopedia of dog breeds and tips, as well as a photographic accounting of the hundreds of different types of dogs known to man.
Fitness Unleashed! A Dog and Owner’s Guide to Losing Weight and Gaining Health Together
Marty Becker, D.V.M., and Robert Kushner, M.D.
(Three Rivers Press, 2006)
Billed as “an indispensable guide to fitness and fun for you and your dog,” this practical book is written by a leading veterinarian and an obesity specialist. (Dr. Kushner directed the People and Pets Exercising Together weight-loss study cited in this report.)
The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think
Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
This book, the work of a dog cognitive expert who has spent decades researching canine behavior, reviews our evolving understanding of what dogs think and comprehend—and their particular brand of genius for developing close relationships with people.
How to Speak Dog: A Guide to Decoding Dog Language
Aline Alexander Newman and Gary Weitzman, D.V.M.
(National Geographic Society, 2013)
This photo-rich softcover from a veterinarian is a guide to 50 common canine poses and vocalizations, offering insight into what it means, among other things, when a dog play bows, raises one paw, holds his tail in a certain position, grins, whines, yawns, or barks.
Skijor With Your Dog
Mari Høe-Raitto and Carol Kaynor
(University of Alaska Press, 2012)
This book provides comprehensive information to get you started with skijoring, a winter sport that originated in Scandinavia, in which one or more dogs pull you on cross-country skis.
Through a Dog’s Ear: Using Sound to Improve the Health and Behavior of Your Canine Companion
Joshua Leeds and Susan Wagner, D.V.M., M.S.
(Sounds True, Inc., 2008)
This book, with its accompanying series of CDs, describes how dogs hear the human world and offers tips, techniques, and specially created and research-tested musical compositions to relieve dog anxiety and panicky behaviors.
aggression: Threatening behavior such as growling, barking, or biting.
agility training: A program of running with your dog through obstacle courses.
clicker: A plastic device with a metal strip that, when pressed, elicits a clicking sound that can be used as an obedience training tool.
crate: A metal or molded plastic container for confining a dog.
housetraining: Teaching a puppy or dog to eliminate outside of the house.
microchip: An identity tag for your dog that is injected under the skin by a vet. The microchip is labeled with a number that is recorded in an international database.
mixed breed: A cross of purebred dogs designed to yield specific traits, such as lack of a shedding coat, intelligence, or sweet personality. Also called hybrids or designer dogs.
moderate-intensity aerobic activity: A physical activity that causes a slight but noticeable increase in breathing and heart rate. You should be able to talk comfortably while breaking a sweat.
mutts: Dogs of unknown heritage and often mixes of several breeds.
pedometer: A device that measures the steps you take and the distance you walk.
positive reinforcement: Rewarding a dog with a treat, verbal praise, or physical affection for behaving as you want him to.
puppy socialization: A critical period early in a dog’s life (usually between 6 and 14 weeks of age) when the dog learns to be around other animals and people without being scared or aggressive.
purebred: One of 178 distinct breeds of dogs recognized by the American Kennel Club.
skijoring: A winter sport originating in Scandinavia in which one or more dogs pull you on cross-country skis.
Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD
Clinical Assistant Professor,
Harvard Medical School
Lisa Moses, VMD
Staff Veterinarian, Pain Medicine Service,
Angell Animal Medical Center
Published by Harvard Medical School
Anthony L. Komaroff, MD, Editor in Chief
Patrick J. Skerrett, Executive Editor
In association with Belvoir Media Group, LLC
Robert Englander, Chairman and CEO
Timothy H. Cole, Executive Vice President and Editorial Director
Licensing and corporate sales
For the latest information and most up-to-date publication list, visit us online at www.health.harvard.edu