It’s pouring with rain, the wind is howling and to add insult to injury, it’s already getting dark. Chances of leaving the house? Zero. Unless you’re a dog owner, that is. The mutt needs to move, even if you don’t. It might seem like a hindrance at the time, but getting outside every single day to walk your dog is a hugely helpful way to stay healthy and happy. Rain or shine.
There are numerous studies to prove it. One of the biggest, involving 3.7million people in Sweden, found that owning a dog was undisputedly linked to a longer life and a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Interestingly, the benefits were especially prominent for those who lived alone and those who owned dogs traditionally bred for hunting, which typically need more exercise. Take a bow, labrador owners.
“We know that dog owners in general have a higher level of physical activity,” says Tove Fall, senior author of the study, “which could be one explanation to the observed results.” It feels a sensible assumption. Tick off that daily stroll – even if it’s raining – and you’re on your way to the government-recommended 150 minutes of activity every week. And what a blessing to get your daily dose of exercise done outside in nature instead of within the sterile confines of a gym.
Chronic pain sufferers, too, have reported positive results. One study published in the American Pain Medicine journal found that therapy dog visits reduced self-reported pain and fatigue for fibromyalgia sufferers. Another discovered that patients recovering from joint replacement surgery required less pain medication if they had short visits from a therapy dog. There are countless other studies that point to similar conclusions. Man’s best friend? You better believe it.
And the benefits go far beyond the physical. The Human Animal Bond Research Institute recently reported that 74% of pet owners enjoyed mental health improvements from owning a pet. Emily Dean, creator and host of podcast Walking the Dog, is one of them. Over a period of three traumatic years, Dean lost her sister, mother and father, leaving her feeling lost, alone and grief-stricken. To help her cope, she got a dog – and off the back of the success of her podcast, she also got a book deal.
Everybody Died so I got a Dog is her account of how her shih-tzu taught her to embrace life again. “The very nature of keeping a dog is illogical,” she says, “but I simply couldn’t argue with how this little chap made me feel. Loving. And loveable. For once, I listened not to my fearful, rationalising adult voice but to my childish unspoilt heart.” Her podcast is filled with similar pronouncements from other proud dog owners.
The charity Mind lists multiple first-person accounts of how dogs have helped people with depression, anxiety and other mental health problems. Some even claim their dogs have saved their lives. Dr Kelly Rushton is part of a team of UK academics who recently carried out an extensive analysis on the impact of animals on their owners. The study concluded that pets do indeed help people manage long-term mental health problems. “We feel that pet ownership has a valuable contribution to mental health, so should be incorporated into individual care plans of patients,” she says.
It’s perhaps research like this that has filtered down and encouraged the emergence of companies such as Paws in Work. Hired by big, busy corporations to improve employee wellbeing, Paws brings a collection of canines to offices across London, giving employees a relaxing break from their busy schedules. A quick scroll through their Instagram page shows their puppies making friends in offices everywhere from Amazon and WeWork to eBay and the Fairtrade Foundation.
“Coming from a background in health and fitness, it was clear that companies were heavily investing in physical wellbeing but with very little attention given to mental health, something that has alarming statistics consistently on the rise,” says Ashley Fry, founder. “Having a service which can connect to staff on so many different levels has proved key in raising awareness on topics that are taking the lives of so many people. Playing with a room full of puppies allows staff to completely forget about work, switch off, meet new people and talk openly about their experiences and stresses.”
The moral of the story? If you’ve been pondering it – and if your lifestyle allows it – perhaps it’s time for a canine companion. “A dog’s innocence and unconditional love fill me with confidence, courage and stability,” says Fry. “There is nothing in this world that can bring people together like a dog does. They open up your heart and get people talking.” And walking, for that matter. Time to pop on that raincoat and get outside.