Research shows that people who own dogs tend to be heathier and happier than their non-dog-owning counterparts.
Why? Perhaps it's because few dog owners can ignore the wrinkled brow and tilt of the head that asks, with irrepressible joy, "A walk?" Now two MU researchers are looking for ways to help everyone enjoy the benefits of ambulation with animals.
"Our project is based on the idea that it is reasonable to assume pets are a motivator to walk," says Rebecca Johnson, professor of nursing and veterinary medicine. "Our thinking was that if this holds true for pet owners, wouldn't it also hold true for non-owners who were given the opportunity to walk a loaner dog?"
Johnson and her colleague, Richard Meadows, clinical associate professor of veterinary medicine, are hoping to find answers in a two-year project that pairs economically disadvantaged and disabled people with borrowed dogs. Study subjects walk their dog for prescribed distances over the course of a year. The researchers, meanwhile, measure changes in participants' physical and mental well-being.
"The people participating in the project do have considerable physical and mental issues to contend with, in addition to having low incomes," explains Meadows. "Our project directly serves their health needs and well-being by motivating them to walk regularly, which is one of the easiest and most recommended activities one can do to improve health. In the process, we're also collecting data to further our understanding of that human-animal relationship."
Johnson and Meadows recruited 15 middle-aged residents of subsidized housing for the initial phase of the study. Each potential participant was then given a health screening that included measurements of weight, bone density, blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol, triglycerides and joint mobility. They were also screened for depression and given a new pair of walking shoes. The dogs, volunteered by their faculty, staff, and student owners, got handling and obedience classes.
Everyone started slowly. Initial walks with a handler were scheduled for only 10 minutes per day, three times a week. But over the course of the year nearly everyone worked up to 30 minutes per day, five times a week. What's more, the researchers say, almost all participants came to eagerly embrace both the exercise and their new best friends.
"The results have been even greater than I imagined," says Johnson. "We have had several people who have lost 30 to 40 pounds, with one woman losing almost 100. Another man said that knowing he's going to walk 'his' dog has given him a reason to get up in the morning."