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Health benefits of owning a dog

Friday, April 25, 2014
Dirt Under the Nails

I’m sure many readers have seen the title of this article and thought. “O no! Here’s another tree hugger who’s going to give an emotionally-charged lecture on some nonsense about a set of pot hounds.” 


I believe people will say this because the ignorance about dogs is proven everyday that I walk my dog. The majority of Trinbagonians do not understand dogs, nor do they know how to care for them, or appreciate the benefits they can provide. Granted my liver-coloured, 85 pound floppy-eared Doberman is rather humongous, and I am small in frame, but without fail drivers slow down, toot their horns, shout and often stare in awe at the sight of me and my dog strolling along the sidewalk. Today I counted six horn toots within the hour of walking. Why? I can only surmise that Trinidadians view me and my dog as entertainment…a rare, strange experience to be taken in like a set of “never-see come-sees.” “Das ah pit bull?” one screamed at me recently, obviously implying that any large dog is a pitbull. 


Trinis are totally unaccustomed to seeing people walk their dogs, because they just do not do it. Trinidad is not a dog-friendly society, and with the recent talk of this ridiculous “Dangerous Dog Act” people are becoming even more ignorant and unnecessarily afraid of these animals. It’s not the animals that are the problem…it’s the people. Raise a child to steal, he will become a thief; raise a dog to be aggressive, he will bite. Get over it and stop blaming the dogs. 


But enough of my rant; after all, this is a sports and health column. There have been many scientific studies that have shown associations between dog ownership and good health. Without even reading the science, I can easily attest that dogs lower stress levels. There is nothing like arriving home after a hectic day to a tail-wagging Doberman that is unwaveringly ecstatic to see me. In fact, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a scientific statement titled “Pet Ownership and Cardiovascular Risk,” which acknowledged a beneficial relationship between pets and reactions to stress. 


The statement also revealed that dog ownership may be responsible for lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease, and has reported a lower death rate in dog owners with the condition. This is due to the positive effects dogs can have on aspects of the disease. Studies have shown an association between pet ownership and lower blood pressure and heart rates.


In addition, there are many scientific reports that have demonstrated a relationship between dog walking and lower levels of obesity. This is no surprise as many dog owners engage in walking and movement, and are better able to meet the required levels of daily physical activity. My sessions of physical activity are much longer with my dog, than they would be without her. This is simply because I would suffer through 30 minutes of jogging and not a minute more (because I am not fond of running) when she is not with me. However, when walking her, I do so for a full hour. She makes the activity much more pleasurable and I get twice the amount of physical activity per week than if I just jogged on my own. She provides me with motivation to get out when I would prefer to lounge after a long day, and in doing so is a huge positive influence on my lifestyle. This effect was also supported in a study titled, “People and Pets Exercising Together,” which showed that dogs “can serve an important role as a social support system for engagement in physical activity and participation in a weight loss program.”


However, if all you’re interested in is getting motivation to walk, don’t get a dog. If you’re not a dog lover, nor have time to care for the animal, then you’re wasting your time, thinking unrealistically and being unfair to the dog, who will suffer neglect. With animal ownership comes responsibility and time commitments, and a consideration for everyone’s safety…humans and dogs alike. 


Dog walking needs to be safer for the dogs and people who walk them. Too many “dog owners” do not secure their animals and they are left to roam the streets, like poorly supervised children, harassing anyone who may pass by. Between these irresponsible owners and the harassment from motorists on the streets, I am like a prisoner, restricted to a small area of my neighbourhood in which to walk. Thankfully, my dog does not seem to mind, and she keeps my daily step count high. Walking her is the least I can do in repayment for the benefits she provides me. 


Carla Rauseo, DPT, CSCS, ATRIC is a Doctor of Physical Therapy at Total Rehabilitation Centre in San Juan. 


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