Get Healthy, Get a Dog

I was excited when I read about Get Healthy, Get a Dog, a new report from the Harvard Medical School that describes the connections between life with a dog (or dogs) and better health. The article I read in Bark magazine was very enthusiastic, and I immediately purchased a copy of the report, a collaboration between Harvard Medical School and Angell Animal Medical Center (in Boston). A few days later, I settled in to read the whole 50-page document … and was deeply disappointed .

It’s not that the report contains anything negative. In fact, the first section is an excellent review of the many studies that have shown physical and emotional benefits of sharing life with a dog. It offers scientific support for what we all know: Dogs are great company, get people to exercise and take better care of themselves, and help people connect socially and feel less isolated. Great!

There’s a big problem with this part of the report, though: It lacks proper citation of the studies, and there is no list of references. The report does not offer enough information for readers to find the original studies. I expected more professional work from Harvard.

As a person with considerable expertise and experience in working with service dogs, I was especially disgusted by the section on service dogs. The definition provided for service dogs is wrong and misleading, and the authors confuse therapy dogs with service dogs, a common, but inexcusable, error.

I was especially looking forward to the section mentioned in the Bark article where dogs get their turn: Half the report is dedicated to describing what responsible dog ownership entails. Sadly, this portion of the report is very superficial. It reads more like the pet column of a newspaper than a carefully researched report. An example: After a thorough description of canine obesity (complete with the ubiquitous diagram), the authors suggest “limiting” treats to 10 percent of food intake, or “about seven medium-size dog biscuits” for a 70-lb. Labrador. Seven biscuits a day? Just for existing? Not in my house!! (To be fair, they do mention the possibility of using carrots or apple slices as treats and suggest putting the treats into a Kong so the dog has to “work” for them.)

There’s a lengthy section on exercising with your dog with heavy emphasis on exercising safely. As many dog owners do, I live in a moderate climate, so I found the inclusion of skijoring on the list of suggested activities a bit odd and the absence of activities like Rally, flyball, dock diving — and other dog sports that people have actually heard of — unfortunate.

The paper concludes with a short and not comprehensive list of dog resources, primarily a disjointed collection of dog-related organizations, and a brief glossary (which defines skijoring but not service dog). While such a list can never be exhaustive, it would be easy to prepare a better, more coherent list, as well as a list of the studies and books cited.

Save your $18 ($20 for a print copy); better yet, spend it on a subscription to Whole Dog Journal  or Bark. One issue of either of these outstanding dog magazines offers more, and more current, information than this second-rate report.

Note: A longer version of this blog post is published on Barks from the Guildthe blog of the Pet Professional Guild, where I am a monthly contributor.