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Sarasota Thursday, May 12, 2016 3 years ago

Want to get healthy? Get a dog.

Not only will a canine friend help you get more exercise, he can also help liven your mood and improve your overall well-being.

Most afternoons around 5 p.m., Puppet, Liberty and Stanley begin a whine that quickly evolves into a full-fledged frenzy of barking, tail wagging and scratching at the back door. 

It’s the signal that the side-yard dog fest has begun. 

Because we border a large neighborhood park, our yard has become the meeting place for a handful of fun-loving canines. There’s Magic, a designer kind of Yorkie-poo, a Westie named Callie, a Heintz 57 of toy breeds christened Panda, Cosmo, the poodle and my three: two shelter Catahulas and our AKC Australian Shepherd. What a group! 

They romp and play and do tricks for treats. Sometimes a hilarious train of butt sniffing ensues. We two-legged companions chat about this and that, mostly dog related because we are a veritable special-interest group. And multiple studies show that we are most likely healthier than non-canine owners. Indeed, the relationship between dogs and their owners has been shown to improve health and well-being in myriad ways. 

Even Harvard says so

“Get Healthy, Get a Dog” is a Harvard Medical School special report edited by Dr. Elizabeth Frates, director of Medical Student Education at Harvard’s Institute of Lifestyle Medicine. It’s a fascinating compendium of information about man’s best friend and the symbiotic relationship we share with our four-legged companions. 

Perhaps the most important benefit is that dogs fulfill a basic need humans have for connection. According to the report, several long-term studies have shown that social connection reduces illness and increases longevity. 

The more engaged we are in life and with others — two- and four-legged — the better and longer we’ll live. And those of you who have a relationship with a dog know this relationship dynamic: the yelping, wiggling, face-licking greeting can make any bad day better, and there is hardly anything more heart warming than locking a gaze into those soulful, trusting eyes. Scientists tell us that connection releases a hormone called oxytocin, which thwarts depression. What else?

  • Physical health. Dog owners have been shown in several studies to be fitter, thinner with lower blood pressure and less prevalence of diabetes. The American Heart Association even went so far as to state in 2013 that pet ownership represents, “a reasonable strategy for reducing heart-disease risk.” All those long walks looking for the appropriate patch of grass pay off.
  • Psychological health. My Puppet is a “tripod,” having lost one of his front legs from abuse early in his life. Now, as arthritis has set in, our morning walks are slow, sometimes halting with long stretches of rest. What I lack in cardio exercise I more than make up in mindfulness. Dawn brings all kinds of surprises from other critters in our path ranging from the occasional bobcat to armadillos to all manner of bird life. It’s the essence of mindfulness as I view each of these unpredictable happenings through Puppet’s eyes in the very present moment. 
  • Kids’ health. With all of our modern worries over bullying interactions, screen addictions leading to isolation and childhood obesity, there seems to be a relatively simple solution: Get a dog. Kids with pets tend to be more active and feel more emotionally as well as physically secure, according to research cited in the report. Caring for a dog teaches kids responsibility as well as an opportunity to express love. “Animals are constant, nonjudgmental companions and loyal allies,” the report states. And isn’t that something we all need in our life?
Kristine Nickel

About the author
Kristine Nickel is a marketing communications consultant and former marketing/PR exec. For over 30 years she has relieved her stress by writing features for publications across the country.

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