by guest blogger Pam Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, best-selling author and expert on health, fitness, and nutrition
As a child, I never had a dog. I didn’t understand them, and being a bit wary, I’d very cautiously come close to pet them only after having done due diligence to make certain they weren’t looking for a dinner opportunity.
For many years, I was a cat person. I enjoyed the company of three felines, each of which lived more than 20 years. After the last one passed away in my arms, I felt emptiness until my husband, Mark, and I decided to expand our family by a factor of four furry legs.
Having spent a long career in law enforcement, Mark was familiar with protection dogs, primarily German Shepherds. Knowing that I was out there running and walking on park trails, he thought it best to go all out to achieve a win-win—bring in a familiar breed and secure protection for both of us. So two years ago our guy, “Five-O” (which is police code for “cop”), born and bred in a special academy that specializes in training of the more rare black shepherds, was transported from Europe at the age of 20 months.
The first time he entered our home, disoriented and wondering where his Serbian kennel had disappeared to, I took one look at him and ran behind Mark. He looked like a wolf and—trust me—immediately commanded my respect. But service and loyalty are in these dogs’ blood, and true to form, after it became clear I was the primary caregiver, in no time at all, Five-O was Velcroed to me 24/7.
Black shepherds are known as one of the most intelligent, powerful, and obedient breeds, so I’d gone from no dog to a Lamborghini. This was going to be quite a journey.
What’s this got to do with health and wellness? Everything.
Here are life lessons gifted to us by our canine BFFs that we can all appreciate, whether we have a dog or not.
1. Go primal. Picking up after your dog, especially a 75-pounder, is a humbling experience. It’s about as primal as it gets. Initially, I found myself stressing over poops (how many, and was it normal?) as my inner doctor took over. I now know which bags are the mac-daddy to scoop poop. But, it’s funny. As I’ve done this, I’ve been humbled by how basic, primal, and natural all of it is. And it takes place (minus some memorable initial indoor misfires) in nature. Natural begets natural.
2. Eat healthy. How many people out there assertively make certain their dogs eat the healthiest chow then grab junk food to feed themselves? Watch your pet eat. Pets eat because they’re hungry; they eat an appropriate portion (if the owner knows how to do that) and then they’re done. They light up for the occasional treat (Five-O is quite particular about his freeze-dried sweet potatoes) but you won’t find ‘em sneaking to the fridge late at night for more. Feed a pet and, hopefully, it’ll make you stop and question how you’re nourishing yourself.
3. Share tails of laughter. In a unique study in which people kept “laughter logs,” researchers found that the folks who owned dogs laughed much more than people who owned cats or no pet at all. Now, I love cats and always will, and I fully intend on adding one to the family in the future. (Yeah, yeah, dogs have masters and cats have staff.) I still love both! But having a dog is a very different experience. Seeing him walk around with my gym sox in his mouth, proudly parading around the park with his fluorescent green ball “prey,” I just collapse with gleeful laughter. Did you know that children laugh about 300 times per day and adults laugh on average 10 to 12 times? See a problem here? Laughter decreases cortisol, or stress hormone, and in doing so, augments immune function. Have a laugh, with or without a dog, will you?
4. Become a social butterfly. The biggest surprise of all was the countless number of people I’ve met while walking Five-O. OK, as any dog owner will tell you, in pounding the neighborhood pavement you’ll soon come to know the names of every dog, but for some interesting reason, it’s harder to remember the names of the owners. Perhaps because they’re somewhat irrelevant? Hah! Speaking of which, people I meet seem to fall into one of four categories.
- The first is Non-Dog-Owners Who Think I’m Walking a Wolf. “What IS that you’re walking?” they inquire with a mixture of trepidation and wonderment? Upon my command (he knows German and English), he will accept the generous petting of strangers who admire his athletic physique and shiny black fur. OK, truth be told, he’s one of the sweetest dogs on the planet. Just don’t mess with mommy (LOL).
- The second is Owners of Small White Dogs. Five-O was trained to be unflappable. Nothing gets him going unless he’s spurred to action by command or if he senses danger, in which case, he will, like any dog, take appropriate protective action. The large spectrum of small white dogs fascinates but never distracts him. He just doesn’t get what all the commotion is about. These little guys, however, see a large wolf looming over the horizon, and the yapping and hiding behind Owner’s legs commences. It’s actually quite humorous. Five-O just smiles and quietly passes by. Could this be canine mindfulness? A laser focus on paying attention, staying in the moment, and getting the job done?
- The third category is Owners of Out-of-Control Dogs of All Sizes. Dogs who pull at the leash and are perhaps looking for a fight are usually owned by people who have no idea what they’re doing with their canine. That makes me sad, as it doesn’t take much training to produce a calm and happy dog. Again, Five-O shows stress resilience and blows past his anxious brethren without missing a beat. Could this be a lesson in how to adapt and adjust to life’s stresses without resorting to self-destructive behavior? Indeed.
- And the final category, Owners of Five-O’s BFFs: Five-O has a number of cool friends, one of which is a mastiff named Optimist, who towers over Five-O and drools lines of slobbering saliva over Five-O’s back. They frolic in the park, with Optimist bounding after Five-O’s special ball (made for a larger mouth and to withstand his formidable scissorlike bite). Optimist lumbers after the ball as Five-O darts past him (black shepherds are used in special op’s, as they can run 30 mph), snatching it up and prancing around and beneath him, eventually dropping the ball so that Optimist can enjoy, as well. It’s another lesson in how two dear friends play, give, and share.
5. Having a pet is good for your health. There are numerous studies touting a dog owner’s enhanced wellness through decreased heart disease risk, increased stress resilience, greater social connections and a higher quality of life and longevity. Did you know that pet owners in general are more likely to be alive and well one year after discharge from a coronary care unit? That supports other research that has associated pet ownership with decreased blood pressure and cholesterol. And guess what? People who walk dogs tend to be more physically fit and engage in more regular activity than folks who walk with humans. Finally, if a pet’s around when stress hits, the pet owner is much more likely to be calmer and more stress-resilient.
6. It’s best to be part of a pack. I’m never alone with Five-O. When everyone else is away, my guy nuzzles me affectionately and reminds me he’s got my back. Studies have shown that dog owners of all ages, especially older ones, tend to experience an increase in social connectivity, civic engagement, and sense of community. Elderly dog owners feel more satisfaction and note happier and more satisfied emotional states. On the other end of the age scale, caring for a pet—especially a dog—can teach a child attachment, as well as augment emotional development and responsibility. Further, many of these children are less anxious and withdrawn.
Even if you don’t have and may never have a pet, you can still learn so much. Pets remind us about the value of non-judgmental love and loyalty while they humble us with the realization that it’s really the simple, basic, and uncluttered things in life that carry the greatest value.
So get on out there and learn from our canine friends—even if you don’t have one.
Pamela Peeke, MD, MPH, FACP, is a Pew Scholar in nutrition and metabolism, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland, and a fellow of the American College of Physicians. A triathlete and mountaineer, she is known as “the doc who walks the talk,” living what she’s learned as an expert in health, fitness, and nutrition. Dr. Peeke is featured as one of America’s leading women physicians in the National Institutes of Health Changing Face of Medicine exhibit at the National Library of Medicine. Her current research at the University of Maryland centers on the connection between meditation and overeating. She is the author of many best-selling books, including Fight Fat after Forty. Her new book is the New York Times best-seller The Hunger Fix.