Ever since I can remember there have been dogs in my life, apart from a few wilderness years that I don’t even like thinking about. People who don’t like dogs, or who impatiently command them to get down when they jump up for a snog, are not my people. People whose houses are strewn with every size of dog bed, dog-hairy couch covers, muddy paw prints and disemboweled toy ‘foxees’ are my people.
But what are the health benefits of dogs – are they any good for us?
Of course they are! Any dog owner will tell you about the unconditional love and adoration their dog gives them, the way they are always so excited to see you even if you’ve only been upstairs to get some washing, the way they poke their nose round the bathroom door when you’re in the shower just to check you haven’t gone away, the way they love to share your dinner, and the washing up….
There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence about their total awesomeness but what about hard evidence (you know how everything these days from drinking a glass of milk to the way you fold your pants has to be backed up with a research paper, right?) Well there is hard evidence too! Yes, someone has been to university and is now paid a massive wad to do huge studies that tell us what everyone has known for yonks, dogs are good for our health.
One such study involved 3.4 million Swedish people. In Sweden dog registration is mandatory and hospital visits are recorded in a national database. When the two were compared it showed that there was a lower risk of cardiovascular disease in dog owners compared to people who shouted “Oh God GET DOWN!” when dogs jumped up for a snog (I’m using a bit of artistic licence here before you start looking for that in the study). This bit is straight up though, the effect was even more prominent for people who lived alone, if they owned a dog they were 33% less likely to die early and 11% less likely to get cardiovascular disease.
Without even doing a study that costs more than my house it’s easy to work out why isn’t it? Dog owners are more active, at least responsible dog owners are. If you’re reading this and you don’t take your dog for walks (or get anyone else to) you are also not my people. But yes, those who walk their dog every day are getting lots of exercise. Dog owners are more active in bad weather than non dog owners are in good weather, apparently, and I see this to be true with my own eyes. Whatever the weather you have to take the mutt out, and very beautiful it is too.
Dogs make exercising easy
Thing is, it’s really hard to not go for a walk every day when you have a dog, here’s why:
- It pleads with you with those doleful eyes.
- It keeps dropping its tennis ball on your foot.
- It nibbles your ankles.
- It starts ripping the sofa up.
- Every time you walk to within 6ft of your anorak to go and make a brew the dog faints from excitement.
Going for a walk on your own doesn’t have quite the same pull, with a dog in tow you feel as if you’re doing an important job rather than just walking along trying to see into people’s windows or wandering aimlessly in the countryside like some kind of billy-no-mates. You are never a billy-no-mates with a dog, you have your best mate right there at all times. You have purpose and you get to meet new people, other dog lovers. What could be nicer?
Dogs make you happier
And that’s the other thing. Feeling a bit down? Hug your dog! Although my two seem to get quite distressed when I’m walking along wailing…
“WHY WHY WHY WHY??! She/he/they must think I’m some kind of total idiot!”
They’re like “Oh God mum’s off again” and off they go across the fields to find rabbits and come back when I’ve calmed down. Anyway. Feeling happy? Hug your dog! Feeling tired? Hug your dog! The hugging opportunities are endless, and we all need to give hugs and get a ton of love back.
Apparently when we’re around dogs our stress hormones decrease, cortisol in particular, and given that we lead cortisol-soaked lives these days dog ownership should be on prescription cos constant cortisol release does more damage to health than you can throw a stick for.
Other ways dog walking can make you healthier
Apart from making it less likely you’ll have a heart attack there are other big health benefits of dog ownership.
- Spending more time in sunlight can boost your vitamin D levels.
- Spending time in the natural environment can boost your mood and wellbeing.
- You can take a mate and have a good old chat, sometimes it’s easier to chat side-by-side than face to face. Talking is good for mental health, with the right person!
- You can get those 10,000 daily steps in that everyone is after these days.
- Hell you can even track your dog’s activity and dine out on it!
- You can have a business meeting with yourself.
- You can take photos of clouds and trees, and your dog, and Instagram them.
- Your legs will get stronger.
- Your dinner will go down more easily.
- You can find conkers, teasels, funny shaped stones, and dead buzzards.
How to get more health benefits from dog walks
While it’s brilliant to amble out with the dog a couple of times a day and is a million times better than sitting on your bum, it won’t actually tax your body that much. You can get more bang for your buck by mixing up your walks and doing some different stuff. So you could wear trainers and put in a few episodes of 1–2 minute jogs. You could up the walking pace and imagine you’re late for an appointment, walk at a speed that gets you a bit puffed. If there are hills then walk fast up them and jog down the other side. Walk on different surfaces, like fields, sand, stones, rocks, mud and that will naturally make it a bit harder and you’ll use different muscles.
Dogs might reduce allergies
A mounting body of that omnipresent research says that letting children be around good old fashioned germs may give them better protection from allergies throughout their lives. Once again common sense would tell us that living in a sterile environment, devoid of pets and Dettoxed to within an inch of its life is not the way to build up resistance.
So dogs don’t have that many baths if they can help it, therefore they carry bits and bobs from outdoors into your house, and onto/into you and the kids. Hello diverse microbiome and, therefore, hello too to fewer allergies. This is not to say your children should be around dog poo or generally in the vicinity of a dog’s favourite end but the benefits of living with dogs far outweigh the risks.
Time for a caveat
Dogs are for life not just for Christmas. Too many dogs are given up just because they made muddy paw prints on the kitchen floor or howled when left home alone for seven hours, or put hairs on the sterile sofa, or kids came along and the dog was no longer important. If you’re considering getting a dog then accept that it’s a dog, it’s not an accessory, it won’t stay a puppy, it’ll be sick on the floor occasionally, or worse, it’ll blow off quite a bit, eat off your dinner plate if you let it, bark at the vicar or the bin truck, cost you in vet’s fees; but it will love you more than you have ever been loved in your whole life.
If you get a dog you love it, you look after it come hell or high water, and you keep it for life.
And, you get healthier.
Thank you to Nuush friend, client, whippet mum and all-round lovely Carol Cooney for researching this piece for me.
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