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.
• Start with an older dog. Peterson recommends that families opt for older pets, especially if there are young children in the house. "If you have a child and a puppy, you have two kids," she says. Puppies have not yet learned not to bite or scratch, and may jump up on a child innocently and knock him over. Puppies are also prone to having internal parasites, Peterson says. Those are pretty common in both puppies and kittens, she adds, "and because kids put everything in their mouths, puppies aren't a good idea, particularly if you have a very young child in the house." On the other hand, older pets are calmer, and if you're adopting from a shelter, you can usually find one that's been raised around children and is accustomed to all that energy (and may be more forgiving of the occasional tail pull).
• Buy from people who know their animals. Another benefit of adopting from shelters is that you have adoption counselors who are familiar with the individual personalities of all their animals, and can make recommendations for pets that are a good match for your family, says Peterson. "They know the dogs and can make a good match," she adds, which isn't always easy for the rest of us since we're easily swayed by a cute puppy dog face or a particular breed. "We all are drawn to a certain animal because of how they look," she says, "but basing a decision like this, which comes with a lifetime of commitment, on size or the way an animal looks can get you into trouble." If you would prefer to buy from a breeder, Peterson suggests looking for one "who's not just out to make a buck." Ask for references from a breeder you've found, or call a local veterinarian's office; he or she can usually point you to local breeders whose pets the vet has treated, and can vouch for proper care. And take note of the living arrangements of dogs when you get there. "If you go to somebody's place and the dogs are outside in pens or in the yard, not in the house, that's a dog that has not actually lived inside or had a lot of human contact," she says.
• Know the difference between "active" and "hyperactive" pets. Pets are great exercise motivators. But a dog that has boundless energy and appears on first meeting to be a good exercise companion may not ever calm down. "A hyper dog has a general activity level that is always high and can't relax. He's always going," Peterson says. Hyperactive dogs may not make good playmates for kids. On the other hand, active dogs will have enough energy for playtime but know when to calm down, she adds. It can be hard to tell the difference, though, because playing with an animal at the shelter's play yard or taking him home for a few days may not give you an accurate read of his personality. "That's why I say put some trust in the adoption counselors. Ask as many questions as you can," she says.