Having a dog DOES improve your health

Why do nearly 40% of households in the USA cherish dogs?

Yes, they give us unconditional love. Yes, they become beloved family members.

But research shows that they’re also good for us — for our health, for our children

and for our communities in general. USA TODAY’s Janice Lloyd explores

some of the ways dogs help their two-legged best friends flourish.

Improve our fitness

Kim Goedeker of St. Louis says her dog’s love of the outdoors inspired her to get healthy. Since she adopted Lola five years ago, the two have become hooked on running together. When Goedeker puts on her running shoes in the morning, Lola, a Labrador mix, sprints toward the door.

“One day when we were walking, I figured maybe I could try to get some exercise since I’m already out there,” says Goedeker, 26. “So I started running little by little with her, then made a goal to run a 5K. I actually ran my first marathon that year.”

Goedeker played basketball and tennis in high school, but in college she “never exercised at all.” When she started a career in St. Louis, she wanted a dog. Lola was in a shelter about two hours from the city and scheduled to be euthanized when Goedeker found her.

Now Lola is helping her train for a half-marathon Oct. 23 in Myrtle Beach, S.C. Her younger sister Gwen, who just adopted a dog, is also running.

Goedeker and Lola volunteer for a Girls on the Run chapter, which teaches girls self-esteem through training for a 5K.

New research on childhood obesity by Jo Salmon, a professor in the school of exercise and nutrition sciences at Australia’s Deakin University, shows dog ownership can decrease a child’s chances of being obese by as much as 50%.

Bolster community

Dogs make life friendlier, according to research done by Lisa Wood, a public health instructor at the University of Western Australia. When she studied the social capital of pet owners vs. non-pet owners in three planned Australian neighborhoods, she found pet owners scored higher in gaining trust, making connections and helping out neighbors than non-pet owners.

That’s certainly the case in Dan and Kathy Hughes’ neighborhood in Champaign, Ill. The four-block walk to their dog park could be fast, but not with their dog, Maxwell.

“There are no strangers in his world,” says Dan. “Thanks to Max, we know a lot of neighbors we would have never met. He stops and greets everyone.”

Wood says her work, published in the journal Social Science and Medicine, showed that pets “act as a lubricant for social contact and interaction.”

Help us heal

A wagging tail sometimes is all people need after a rough day.

Greg Louganis, 50, four-time Olympic diving gold medalist, lives an active life in Malibu, Calif.,while also receiving HIV treatments. He competes with his Jack Russell terriers in agility training, a sport requiring both human and canine fitness. They advanced to last year’s Purina Incredible Dog Challenge Nationals.

“They’re with me through thick or thin,” he says. “Like dealing with my HIV treatments, they’re there. If I curl up on my bed and don’t have the energy to get up, they’re just there waiting for me.”

Edward Creagan, an oncologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says he has worked with cancer patients who want to get better so they can get home to pets: “None of us can speak about pets without smiling,” he says.

One possible reason: Animal behaviorist Patricia McConnell writes in her blog that the more a dog looks at an owner, the higher the owner’s level of oxytocin, a hormone aiding relaxation.

Teach us about love

That goes for loving ourselves and others. Child psychologist Robert Bierer of Albuquerque conducted a study of 128 children and concluded that pre-adolescent kids who get the chance to help care for dogs tend to have higher self-esteem and empathy than those who do not.

James Griffin of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development says Mars Inc. is funding NICHD studies on human-animal interaction issues. “The bond is very strong,” he says. “We want to understand it better.”

It’s a bond that was cherished by late writer J.R. Ackerley, author of the 1956 book My Dog Tulip, which was made into an animated film last year. He wrote:

“She offered me what I had never found in my life with humans: constant, single-hearted, incorruptible, uncritical devotion, which it is in the nature of dogs to offer.”

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