Focus on Fitness: Dogs can improve your health and quality of life

By Gloria Schwartz

When I was a child, my parents didn’t allow us to have a dog because they thought it would trigger my allergies. What they didn’t know then, which studies have since shown, is that children who grow up with a dog in the home have a reduced risk of allergies and may also have a boosted immune system.

Whether it’s a pet, a trained service dog or a visiting therapy dog, dogs provide many mental and physical health benefits. Dogs have a calming effect. So do cats and other pets. However, if you have a dog, you probably get more exercise than if you have a cat, a bird or no pet; this contributes to lower blood pressure. Dog owners tend to cope better with stress; they experience less reactivity when under stress; their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly than people who do not have dogs.

For people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), such as military veterans and survivors of other traumatic events, a trained service dog has been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD and improve various measures of physical and emotional well-being ( Dogs also have positive emotional effects on recovering addicts, people with Alzheimer’s disease, intellectual disabilities and autism.

My friend Debbie Geller takes her certified therapy dog, a border collie named Kayleigh, to seniors’ residences. She observes that the elderly residents, including a 101-year-old woman, enjoy the visits and brighten up when they spend time with Kayleigh. To request a visit from a therapy dog, contact Ottawa Therapy Dogs ( or St. John’s Ambulance (

Pet therapy can be a valuable resource for people who stutter. One per cent of children and .5 per cent of the general population, about 290,000 Canadians and 70 million people worldwide, suffer from stuttering ( Stuttering may be the result of a combination of genetic, physiological, environmental and experiential factors. When talking to an animal, there’s no social anxiety or fear of being ridiculed. As part of a therapeutic program, stutterers can practice non-anxious speaking with a dog or other animal and develop positive memories of normal speech (

Owning a dog is linked to longer life. A 12-year study followed 3.4 million people with no history of cardiovascular disease. During this period, there was a lower rate of heart attacks and death from all causes among dog owners compared to participants who did not own dogs. The biggest effect was seen in people who live alone, a group that has a higher risk for early death. During the study, there were 33 per cent few deaths among those who lived alone but had a dog than those who lived alone without a dog.

It’s possible that dog owners tend to be generally more active anyway, but it’s also possible that owning a dog motivates people to be more active and provides many psychological comforts. Breed analysis showed that the best protection from cardiovascular disease was associated with dogs originally bred for hunting (e.g., terriers, retrievers, hounds) and the least protective factor was associated with mixed-breed dogs. Owning a dog decreases the incidence of depression in some isolated populations such as elderly women and HIV-positive men.

Some university campuses have therapy dog programs to help students deal with stress. A few minutes of playing with a dog can provide comfort to students who are away from home and missing family and pets or dealing with other stressors.

Some people with epilepsy benefit from having a dog that is trained to provide them with emotional support during seizures and to detect and alert them before the seizures begin.

My two dachshunds, Twinkie and Schneider, often stress me out. Because one of them is physically disabled and the other one never fully mastered housetraining, I have lots of messes to clean up. They bark whenever the phone or doorbell rings or when the garage door opens. The stress they cause, however, is outweighed by the boundless unconditional love they give me. Whether I’m happy or sad, a cuddle with my dogs makes me feel good.

If you’re considering getting a dog, keep in mind that it’s a long-term, time-consuming and expensive commitment and it’s important to know what type of dog (breed, size, coat, temperament, and energy level) would best fit into your life. A visit to your local animal shelter might put you on track to better health.