They're man's best friend for more than one reason, writes Susan Edmunds.
Next time you walk past a dog owner scooping up after their pet on the street, save the smug smile. Dog owners are healthier - both mentally and physically - than people without canine companions.
Grant Schofield, director of AUT's Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition, said he had done research into the health of dog owners and found that people with a four-legged friend were likely to be fitter. "Having a dog helps you be more active."
But he said the simple fact of just owning a dog would not do any good. A handbag-sized chihuahua would have limited benefit beyond the mental perks of having a companion to pat and chat to. "It needs to be a medium or large dog."
He said owners of such an animal would typically walk an extra 40 minutes a week, over and above what non-dog owners were doing. While that might not sound much, he said people who did not have a dog would usually be exercising as well, so it was a significant increase.
Sandra McCune, an animal behaviorist, agreed. She said dog walkers were more likely to fulfill their daily quota of exercise than other people. One study in the United States found 66 per cent of people who walked regularly did so because of their dogs. Matthew Reeves, from Michigan State University, said dog owners were 34 per cent more likely to hit exercise targets.
He told the Journal of Physical Activity and Health: "Obviously you would expect dog walkers to walk more but we found people who walked their dog also had higher levels of both moderate and vigorous physical activities."
The presence of a dog encouraged humans to talk to each other, as well as to their canine companions. "If people go out with a dog, they're more likely to have a conversation," Reeves said.
Schofield owns a 12-year-old dog. He said the "stop-start" walk he got with his pet was a lesser-quality exercise than he would get going for a run alone. But he said despite the tendency of some animals to meander, the fact they wanted to go out to begin with was a bonus. "The quality is probably down but you are going to get out the door in the first place. And you've got someone to talk to. It's all positive."
Schofield got the idea to study the exercise habits of dog-owners while living in Australia. "There was a guy in a Holden, with his singlet on, walking his dog from the car. He cared enough for his dog to get out but not enough for himself..."
He said he talked to vets who told him that while 50 per cent of people owned a dog, the number one problem they encountered in the animals brought to them was a lack of exercise. Schofield devised a health promotion scheme through the vet. "It's good for you and good for your dog."
But be warned that dog owners who kept the size of their own waistlines down by feeding leftovers to their pets might just be transferring the problem, Schofield said. "There is literature on the dangers of feeding dogs table scraps, as most dogs suffer the same problems we do." Dogs regularly fed leftovers could develop obesity, diabetes and heart problems.
Dog ownership is big in New Zealand as well. This year's Wag 'n' Walk event at the Auckland Domain is expected to attract 1400 dogs and 3000 humans for its 3km trek.
Schofield said having a dog was a good incentive to keep moving. His own pet would start digging holes without a daily walk. "Dogs are just like humans made to live outdoors, more or less in constant motion. And owning a dog is good for blood pressure and the responsibility of looking after something else [is beneficial]."
Deborah Wells, a psychologist from Queen's University in Belfast, said dog owners tended to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol. Writing in the British Journal of Health Psychology, she said pet owners were healthier on average.
They also suffered fewer minor ailments and serious medical problems. "It is possible that dogs can directly promote our wellbeing by buffering us from stress, one of the major risk factors associated with ill-health."
Schofield said: "I can't see too many negatives about having a dog."
Dog's day out
The Warehouse Petplan Wag 'n' Walk:
Auckland Domain, Saturday, December 3, registration 8.30am, fun walk 10am
A fun-filled day out for canines and their companions. Show your support for Paw Justice (25 per cent of all tickets sold will go to the charity which helps prevent animal abuse). Register for the 3km course, followed by an afternoon of doggy talent shows, activities for the kids and the search for New Zealand's best dog.
Be in to win
Weekend Life and The Warehouse Pet Plan Wag 'n' Walk have a terrific prize for you and your dog: a $400 The Warehouse Pet product pack, 4 weeks of The Warehouse Pet Plan pet insurance (value $40) and entry for 4 dogs and their owners to the Wag 'n' Walk event (value $30).
To enter visit nzherald.co.nz/weekend, enter your details and the keywords Wag 'n' Walk by midnight Wednesday, November 23.