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Shedding The Weight

The obesity crisis is a heavy burden for both human and canine populations to bear. Research into how best to tackle the problem is emerging from scientists in varying disciplines. Currently, the American Kennel Club’s Canine Health Foundation is funding a study called The Reciprocal Impact of a Healthy and Active Lifestyle on the Physical and Mental Well-Being of Dogs and Their Owners: Physical Activity and Walking (PAW).

The study’s abstract reads: While it is well established that an active lifestyle and healthy diet can control obesity, there is a paucity of research that has considered the full spectrum of human-dog interactions that contribute to the physical and mental health of a dog and its owner. It is likely that a dog’s health, behavior, and overall well-being are affected by their owner’s lifestyle, including their social interactions and activity level. Dr. Richards believes that in the absence of an active and interactive lifestyle, physical stress, psychological stress and behavior problems likely occur in dogs. Dr. Richards believes that this, in turn, contributes to the documented 47% of owners who report surrender of their dog to an animal shelter because of behavior problems. Dr. Richards will conduct a novel three-month dog walking intervention, with a follow-up at three months and six months post intervention. She believes that increased dog walking will improve the health, behavior, and psychological well-being of dogs and their owners. The results of this study would provide general recommendations for new dog owners, as well as contribute to the standard of care for dogs maintained in laboratories and shelters.

Dr. Richards, Ph.D., RN, is an assistant professor at Purdue School of Nursing. She and her team are part of a growing community of researchers looking at the mutual benefits of exercise shared between people and their dogs. The focal point of Dr. Richards’ work, is that while a person’s unhealthy lifestyle choices affects his or her dog negatively, one’s healthy lifestyle choices can also mean increased wellbeing for one’s pets. She seems to believe – and I couldn’t agree more — that to combat obesity in both people and dogs, we must look only as far as the human-canine companion bond, and how to use it in turning a counterproductive feedback loop into a productive one.

Dr. Richards’ current study, The Reciprocal Impact of a Healthy and Active Lifestyle on the Physical and Mental Well-Being of Dogs and Their Owners, builds on her previous work, including the studies: Dog ownership and physical activity: a review of the evidence, and Development and psychometric testing of the Dogs And WalkinG Survey, which examines the use of an instrument to track “the individual and interpersonal correlates of dog walking”.

Dr. Richards’ research adds to the growing evidence that dogs – as exercise partners – provide the kind of emotional and social support that keeps people motivated in their practice of getting and staying fit. Other studies similar to hers are the PPET Study (People and Pets Exercising Together)out of the Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Wellness Institute in Chicago, where researchers charted the difference in weight loss over a year-long period between individuals exercising (walking) with a dog, versus those going it alone. And the Walk a Hound, Lose a Poundproject, out of the Research Center on Human Animal Interaction (ReCHAI), at the University of Missouri, Columbia’s College of Veterinary Medicine. In this program, overweight participants walk shelter dogs for the benefits that exercise provides for all. These studies’ common goal is to prove that there is great potential in the human-canine bond for enhanced quality of life, physical fitness, psychological, social and emotional health.

These articles will be of great use to me as I develop my Master’s thesis project at Bergin University of Canine Studies (formerly the Assistance Dog Institute), which is to create a fitness-related assistance dog. Dr. Richards’ studies, and others like hers, are helping pave the way for my own unique contribution to the service dog world. And for this, I could not be more thrilled or grateful.

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