Dogs are man's (and woman's) best friend, not just because they provide us with companionship, but also, studies show, because they get us off our bums and moving—which keeps our hearts healthy and our waistlines from ballooning. It turns out the family pooch can also be a powerful tool in the battle against childhood obesity. A new study published in the American Journal of Public Health finds that children with dogs get more physical activity than their petless peers, and overall, they move more, whether they take a dog for a walk, toss him balls, or simply spend a few minutes rolling around with her on the floor.
THE DETAILS: The study's authors had 2,065 schoolchildren wear activity monitors for 7 days, tracking each child's average daily activity and the number of steps each took. They compared that data with questionnaires asking whether or not the children had dogs at home. Just 10 percent of the study participants had dogs, but those kids recorded more overall movements, movements per minute, and steps compared with the non–dog owners. They also averaged 10 extra minutes per day of physical activity than non–dog owners, a small amount that nevertheless adds up over an entire childhood.
WHAT IT MEANS: Four-legged pals are great motivators, and not just for kids. Past research has shown that adults with dogs take 25 percent more steps per day than those without dogs. So if you're looking for an exercise buddy, a dog may be the best way to keep you active—and lower your stress levels, teach responsibility, and improve the quality of your diet.
The most important thing to remember when considering the purchase of a dog for your family is whether or not you—the adult—actually want one, says Nancy Peterson, cat programs manager in the companion animals department of the Humane Society of the United States. "No matter how much a child wants a dog, the ultimate responsibility of caring for him is with parents if the child falls behind on some of his responsibilities," she says.
Here are a few other tips for knowing whether your family is ready for a dog:
• Consider your child's emotional and physical maturity levels. Peterson says it's hard to make carte blanche recommendations on what age level is appropriate for dog ownership, but she notes that experts generally advise that kids under 6 are too young. "Children between 2 and 6 years of age are usually very interested in dogs and other animals," she says, "but they may actually be too young to realize this pet is not a toy, that it's a living animal that has needs of its own." A good marker that a child is ready for a pet, she says, is whether she follows through on household chores that you give her. Also pay attention to physical maturity. "If a child can't control his balance or isn't too coordinated, he might fall on the dog," she adds. It's also a good idea to let your kids play with friends' or neighbors' dogs—as long as those dogs are friendly and parental supervision is constant (for both your child's benefit and that of the dog). If your child acts responsibly around the animal—not pulling the dog's tail or ears, not poking fingers in its eyes or mouth, and not playing too roughly—that's usually a good sign that he or she is ready for a pet.