Our first baby was a boy. My husband and I named him Jake. So sweet was his little face, so sparkly his deep brown eyes, it was love at first sight when I found him at the SPCA, a five-pound ball of brindled fur in need of a home.
Yes, before the (human) children, there was the dog. And after Jake came another adoptee, Maxine, our Border Collie-German Shepherd cross.
Turning twelve, she defies her senior dog years. Her coat is only sprinkled with grey, her hind end only mildly arthritic, her elation when the leash comes out only slightly subdued. She is the family dog – the one who grew up with the kids, from elementary school until she saw them off to university. She is not just a pet—she’s a member of the family and according to science, she’s a lifesaver too.
As if their devotion isn’t enough, here we offer five more healthy reasons to love our furry friends.
1) Every dog has his daily outing
When the weather outside is frightful, we'd rather curl up under a comforter with cup of something soothing, but sorry! Like a bootcamp boss, your dog (albeit with a wistful whimper instead of an annoying, “woo-hoo!”) is going to kick your booty outside and into action.
Not only do dog owners walk more, research shows they go further, faster. A study out of Michigan State University found they are 34 percent more likely to fit in 150 minutes of walking a week, while a University of Missouri study found people with puppies walked 28 percent faster with their hounds than they did with their human friends.
Christy Lovig, a lawyer and partner with Doak Shirreff in Kelowna, doesn’t need her dogs to push her speed. A nationally ranked competitive runner, she recently broke 2:48 on the clock at the London Marathon, but she says her dogs are responsible for something even more important: slowing her down.
"It's cliché, but we're all so busy! We don't take the time to slow down, get outside and enjoy every breath of fresh air, every step… not just for exercise… for unplugging."
Lovig and her husband regularly hike with their beautiful Timberwolf-Husky crosses, Axel and Kona. “It's therapeutic to go out with them,” Lovig says. “Dogs are so happy and grateful for each stick and rock and little thing along the way. It’s exciting for them! As humans, I think we're missing out on a lot."
Lovig leaves the phone at home and her worries behind when she hits the hills. “Our hikes are time to explore, time away from the world and people,” she explains. “Never once have I regretted getting outside with the dogs.”
2) Lower your stress and heal your heart with a cat (or dog)
Did you know just being in the presence of your pet decreases your body's response to stress? That means lower heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones, like cortisol. Similar to a mother bonding with her baby, when we gaze into our dogs eyes, we get a surge of oxytocin, the hormone that helps establish maternal connection and trust—and also helps to reduce blood pressure.
A study published in Hypertension and cited on helloheart.com, divided forty-eight stockbrokers with hypertension (can you say stress?) into two groups, both taking medication to lower blood pressure.
The first group adopted a cat or dog. Six months later that groups’ blood pressure was much lower when faced with stressful situations than the group without pets.
A lot of research has been conducted in recent years between pet ownership and cardiovascular risk. In particular dog owners seem to benefit, not only because they tend to get more exercise, they also have decreased cholesterol levels, blood pressure, and a lower incidence of obesity, according to the Canadian Heart Association.
3) Roll over allergies, Rover's got the cure
Research completed right next-door, at the University of Alberta, suggests our pets’ bacteria can help protect our babies from allergies and even obesity.
Pediatric epidemiologist, Anita Kozyrskyj, who recently published her team’s findings in the journal, Microbiome, says families with furry friends (particularly dogs), show increased levels of gut microbes, oscillospira and ruminococcus, both of which are linked to a lower risk of allergies and obesity.
Next time your dirty dog runs through the door, remind yourself the muck and bacteria he brings with him help build immunity for everyone.
Kozyrskyj says babies most benefit while in utero and during the first three months of life because that's when gut immunity and microbes co-develop.
4) Pets paws-itively influence kids
You know the saying, “Be the kind of person your dog thinks you are”? Caring for pets might make your kids that great.
Numerous studies over many years show correlation between attachment with pets and higher empathy scores. Children learn to focus on pets’ needs, not just their own, and they learn to read nonverbal cues that require caring action. Is the cat hungry? Does the dog need to go out? Is the bunny wrinkling his nose at his dirty cage?
Counselors report children who’ve endured trauma like war, natural disasters, family issues and tragedies, are better able to express anger and sadness by telling their stories over—and over—often to a pet. Who better to listen than the furry family member who won’t judge and never tires of the same story?
Petrina Koltun is a real estate agent with Royal LePage Kelowna and mother to a couple of busy boys and a whole pile of pets.
With two black labs, two baby ferrets, three fish tanks, eight birdfeeders, and up until recently three guinea pigs, Koltun is a firm believer that teaching children how to treat animals creates more responsible, kinder kids who take that caring outside the home.
“Two years ago for Mother's Day my family made me a pond but when it came to fall we could not bear to leave the fish out there, so we brought them inside. Now we have twenty-three of them—some quite large!”
Koltun's younger son, Carson, twelve, is responsible for daily feeding and regular cleaning of their tanks; Kieran, fourteen, takes the dogs and ferrets for daily walks.
“My boys play video games and football, but having pets teaches them patience, responsibility, great compassion, and how to love unconditionally. Having pets creates an environment of enjoyment for our family and gets us outside, into nature, which is so good for our health."
5) Ruff day? Dogs can help
It’s one of the most stressful times in a young person’s life: the first year of university. But an innovative program implemented by UBC Okanagan Faculty of Education Assistant Professor, Dr. John-Tyler Binfet, has students going to the dogs.
B.A.R.K. (Building Academic Retention through K9’s) brings students and trained therapy dogs together in order to “reduce stress, combat homesickness, foster interpersonal connections, and promote the overall social-emotional well being of students.”
B.A.R.K. includes a number of different programs but Binfet says one of the most popular is the drop in, where students can hang out in the BARK room with some fifteen to twenty dogs and their owners.
With students from all over the country, plus a large international population, many are away from family for the first time. The dogs help students feel connected to the campus and each other. Conversations occur and there’s lots of laughter in the BARK room.
“Dogs are social lubricants,” Binfet explains. “When we look at happiness, your social capital, how connected you are to others around you is a key factor in well-being.”
Binfet and his team have conducted three studies showing a significant reduction in stress and homesickness after students visit the BARK room.
“There are physiological benefits—decrease in biomarker stress indicators like blood pressure, cortisol levels—and socially, students become more connected to those around them—they describe a calming of anxiety through the dogs,” Binfet says.
Internationally recognized, B.A.R.K. has been named one of the top 900 programs in North America. More than 30 percent of students on campus use the program.
Need a healthy boost? GET A FURRY FRIEND.
Consider adoption! Contact the SPCA at: spca.bc.ca or call the Kelowna branch at 250 861-7722