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If You Are Going on a Diet, Should You Get a Dog?

Research asserts that normal-weight pets have healthy weight humans alongside.

Key points

  • One study found that dog owners were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes per week.
  • Owning a dog has also been linked with better general physical and emotional well-being and better sleep.
  • Being outside for a walk may remove the dieter from the temptation of snacks at home.

One of the standard recommendations for dieters is that they start or increase their physical activity when initiating a diet, and the most frequently recommended type of physical activity is walking. However, if the individual, pre-dieting, has found walking something to be done tomorrow but not today, then it is necessary to find motivation sufficiently robust to start the walking program today. Human walking partners are often useful to add conversation and companionship to a walk, but not always available at the times the dieter might have for walk. A substitute, always reliable, is a dog, especially a young dog.

To put some data behind what seems like an obvious conclusion, scientists in England monitored physical activity of dog-owning and non-dog-owning adults over the summer a few years ago. They found that dog owners were four times as likely as non-dog owners to meet the guidelines for physical activity of 150 minutes per week.

More evidence that dog ownership is associated with other parameters of good health that might support weight loss comes from another study looking at the relationship between dog ownership, physical activity, sleep, and general health. Positive associations were found between owning a dog and general physical and emotional well-being, increased physical activity, and better sleep.

But perhaps getting a dog is no guarantee that the both dog and dieter will be slim(mer). In one survey, dogs in the U.S. (and cats as well) are becoming fatter. According to the results of the survey, 58% of cats and 54% of dogs in the U.S. are obese or overweight. Are the owners of fat dogs not responding to their need (the dog’s need) to exercise? Do they put their dogs in a fenced yard and not notice if the dog lies in the grass watching it grow rather than running around? A dog trainer who works with urban and suburban canines and their owners told me that many suburban dog owners never walk their dog on a leash. “Why should they,” she told me, “when all they have to do is open the door and let the dog out?” That, of course, is not an option for the urban dog or owner.

But perhaps an obese dog reflects the owner’s eating habits. A study reported from the University of Copenhagen found something that might be distressing to dogs worried about their figures. The prevalence of overweight dogs is significantly greater among overweight owners than dogs owned by normal weight owners. Only about 14% of canines belonging to normal weight owners were overweight, whereas 35% of the dogs of obese owners were themselves overweight.

One explanation is that snack time is enjoyed equally between the canines and owners as they nibble on species-appropriate comfort foods. This study did not look at physical activity, although one might assume that sitting on a sofa enjoying a snack might replace going for a walk.

One additional problem is that some dogs don’t like to walk, and would rather spend their time outside sniffing trees, fire hydrants, and poles rather than prancing along beside their owners. A friend whose older dog preferred sitting to moving ended up developing strong arm muscles from carrying her canine to and from the park, but went to the gym to walk on a treadmill since her dog wouldn’t walk more than a few steps. And, of course, extreme weather conditions prevent much walking outside for both two- and four-legged animals.

However, there is an alternative to freezing, or subjecting a dog’s paws to a hot pavement in order to pursue fitness for canine and owner. In his article, Bryn Nowell describes commercial exercise options for dogs alone, as well as with, dog plus owner exercise programs at Zoom Room. (In the interest of full disclosure, I know the mother of the CEO of Zoom Room.) Dogs cannot go through agility and other types of training and exercise alone. Their owners cannot drop off their dogs for their training session, but must participate in all the exercises along with them (except perhaps the nose training drills).

Walking one’s dog may indirectly facilitate weight loss for the owner. Unless the destination is a doughnut or ice cream shop, being outside for a walk removes the dieter from giving in to eating tempting snacks at home. Dog walkers tend to be friendly toward other dog walkers (unless the dogs dislike each other). Many people have gotten to know others in their neighborhood because they see the same people every day at the same time walking their canines. Anything that diminishes social isolation diminishes the possibility that eating becomes a substitute for companionship. During the pandemic, the only people I had any regular contact with were dog owners whose pets were walked around the same time each day. Masks, and in the cold our winter hats and scarfs, made it impossible to know what the owner looked like, but we recognized each other by our dogs (and indeed often knew the dog’s name but not that of the owner).

Dog owners may be jolted into exercising more vigorously than they intended when the other end of the leash is pulled by a dog running after a squirrel or another dog. Bending down to pick up poop may not be a particularly elegant way of doing deep knee bends but it does present that opportunity. Venting the frustrations of the day by describing them to your dog on your walk effectively releases some of the tension (and perhaps anger) that built up during the day. Expressing them out loud may decrease the possibility that they will lead to emotional overeating and inhibit your weight loss. And your dog will never repeat what you said.