Isn't there anything a dog can't do? Fido can scare away intruders, fetch the morning paper, find his owner a date (so we've been told) or if you're really lucky, open the refrigerator door and bring back a cold beer [source: YouTube]. While a beer-fetching dog might be a welcomed addition to any household, dogs seem to have a higher calling: They can make a human's life much healthier, especially overweight or inactive children.
We all know that dogs love to play and they love to walk, and any veterinarian can wax eloquent about how important exercise is to the health of a dog. What about humans? Specifically children? Does walking and playing with a dog correlate into a more active, and as a result, healthier child?
While there have been several studies in recent years linking pet dogs to increased physical activity in children, cause and effect has yet to be proven. So does owning a dog make a child more active, or do active families own dogs [source: Russell]?
Regardless, several studies suggest that kids who come from dog-owning families are more active than children who don't live with a dog. The studies are more important than ever because the amount of time children spend exercising is pitifully low. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), less than a third of 15-year-olds get an hour of moderate to vigorous exercise a day, the minimum amount that the federal government recommends [source: Hellmich].
According to one NIH study, 9-year-olds spend an average of three hours a day in moderate to vigorous exercise, while 15-year-olds spend 49 minutes being physically active on the weekdays and 35 minutes on weekend days. Boys are generally more active than girls [source: Hellmich].
Such inactivity is a blueprint for a disaster. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 17 percent of children aged 2 to 19 are obese, meaning their body mass index is at or above the 95th percentile for children of the same age and sex. That's 12.5 million obese kids, in case you're counting [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. In addition to being overweight, obese kids often suffer from asthma, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Scientists have also linked depression, joint problems and diabetes with obesity [source: Kids Health].
So we ask the question again: Can dogs really make children more active, and as a result, healthier? Go to the next page to find out.
Walking the Dog(s)
It wasn't long ago when yours truly had a bit of a spare tire -- the Michelin Man on Oreos. That was before I hooked up with two of my best buds, McBeal and Sophie. Mick, as I like to call her, is the alpha among us, the daughter of a purebred English setter who dated the mutt down the street. Sophie on the other hand is all chocolate Lab, complete with papers, a candy kiss nose, two marbles for eyes and a hefty appetite.
All of us needed to shed a few pounds. As such we spent a lot of time hiking and playing. We walked the hills of Connecticut and meandered through the mountains of Vermont. We scaled rocky cliffs, got bogged down in bogs, and on one particular occasion, wandered 5 miles off a rather simple trail. We were all active. All of us lost weight.
It's a well known fact that adult pet owners, such as myself, get more exercise than those who don't own a pup. For years, researchers wondered whether the same was true for children. In 2010, a team of researchers from St. George's University of London set out to find the answer.
A research team led by epidemiologist Dr. Christopher Owen studied 2,065 children between the ages of 9 and 10 in Great Britain, monitoring the children's exercise levels for a week. Out of those children, 202 lived with a dog. Owen concluded the dog-owning children were physically active more than five hours, or 325 minutes, each day on average, 11 more minutes than those without a dog [source: Russell].
An Australian study, this one conducted by researchers at Melbourne's Deakin University, found children between the ages of 5 and 12 who lived with a dog were in better shape than those that did not have a pup. They found that young children who play with the family dog were 50 percent less likely to be obese or overweight compared to those who did not have a pooch [source: Shears].
If that isn't reason enough to adopt a dog, scientists at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville concluded that teens from dog-owning families get more physical exercise than teens who don't own pets. The teens from the dog-owning families got about 15 minutes more of exercise each week than their pet-less counterparts [source: MSNBC].
While kids seem to be more active when their families own a pet, that's just the beginning. Pets, especially dogs, provide children -- all of us really -- with a variety of health benefits. Read on to find out more.
Dr. Wet Nose
Lisa Freeman, a professor at Tufts University in Massachusetts observed that if a child read to a dog, the child's desire and ability to read seemingly increased. Was it possible that dogs could enhance a child's reading skills? Freeman decided to answer that question.
Over a five-week period, Freeman, a few furry dogs and 18 second-graders gathered at a local library. Freeman split the children into two groups. One group read whatever book they wanted aloud to a dog for 30 minutes each week. The other group did the same, except their audience was a human adult. When the five weeks were up, Freeman measured the children's reading abilities. The children who read to the canines increased the number of words they could read per minute. As for the children who read to the humans -- the number of words they read per minute decreased [source: Johnson].
Freeman then measured the children's general attitude toward reading. The dog-reading group showed a positive increase in their feelings toward reading, while the human-reading group showed a decline. Moreover, a third of the children dropped out of the human group, while no one left their canine audience [source: Johnson].
Freeman's research is another bit of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that suggests dogs play a huge role in the health of children. In fact, scientists are now studying whether dogs have a profound impact on the health of autistic children [source: Baranauckas]. Milo, the autistic son of Claire Vaccaro from Manhattan, knows this first hand. Milo's life changed when a four-legged yellow Labrador retriever named Chad came into his life. With Chad as his new best friend, the boy became much calmer and was able to concentrate more. Milo's mother said it was almost like a "cloud was lifted" [source: Baranauckas].
Such stories don't seem that far-fetched to dog owners as science starts to find out what most of us have known all along -- that having a pet around makes for a healthier lifestyle. Studies show that spending time with a dog decreases the level of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, in the human body. Moreover, dogs and other pets spur the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that makes people feel good about themselves [source: WebMD].
The benefits to children seem to be overwhelming. A parent would think that having a pet increases their child's chance of getting an allergy. Not so. Researchers say a child growing up in home with a furry dog, or cat for that matter (we can't forget Fluffy), will have less chance of coming down with allergies or asthma than children who live without animals [source: Davis].
To underscore the point, James E. Gern, a pediatrician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, analyzed the blood of babies immediately after they were born and one year later. He concluded that infants who lived with pets were less like to show evidence of pet allergies. They were also less likely to suffer from a skin condition called eczema [source: Davis].
Dogs also help a bolster a child's social skills and self-esteem. Dogs are conversation pieces with wet noses and sloppy tongues. Dog owners love to talk about their pups and interact with other dog owners. Children, who play with their dogs around other children, learn important social and communication skills.
Moreover, dogs allow hyperactive kids to learn responsibility. Playing with a dog is also a good way for kids with Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder to release excess energy and to enhance their self-esteem [source: WebMD].
Studies also show that dogs lower blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Like we said before, is there anything Fido can't do? So, the next time little Joey or Molly nags you to get a dog, think about all the health benefits our furry friends provide. It might just be cheaper than going to the doctor.
More Great Links
- Baranauckas, Carla. Exploring the Health Benefits of Pets." The New York Times. Oct. 5, 2009. (Aug. 11, 2011). http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/06/health/06pets.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Obesity Trends. July 21, 2011. (Aug. 10, 2011). http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/trends.html
- Davis, Jeanie Lerche. "5 Ways Pets Can Improve Your Health." (Aug. 10, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/features/health-benefits-of-pets
- Hellmich, Nancy. "As kids get older, they drop the ball of exercise." USA Today. July 16, 2008. (Aug. 10, 2011). http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/weightloss/2008-07-15-inactive-teens_N.htm
- Johnson, Carolyn Y. "Reading to dogs may have benefits for children." Boston Globe. Aug. 10, 2011. (Aug. 11, 2011). http://www.boston.com/Boston/dailydose/2011/08/reading-dogs-may-have-benefits/VLho7fH7fecr2msqWQfiiJ/index.html
- KidsHealth.org. "When Being Overweight is a Health Problem." (Aug. 10, 2011). http://kidshealth.org/teen/food_fitness/dieting/obesity.html
- MSNBC.com "A teen's best friend? Kids with dogs exercise more." Feb. 8, 2011. (Aug. 10, 2011). http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/41475217/ns/today-today_pets_and_animals/t/teens-best-friend-kids-dogs-exercise-more/
- Russell, Peter. "Want Kids to Get Exercise? Get a Dog." WebMD. Sept., 24, 2010. (Aug. 10, 2011). http://www.webmd.com/parenting/news/20100924/want-kids-to-get-exercise-get-a-dog
- Shears, Richard. "Why a dog is an obese child's best friend." Daily Mail. Oct. 14, 2008. (Aug. 10, 2011). http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1077451/Why-dog-obese-childs-best-friend.html
- WebMd.com. "27 Ways Pets can Improve Your Health." (Aug. 10, 2011). http://pets.webmd.com/slideshow-pets-improve-your-health