My Dog Says, “You Want Me To Do What?”

Dogs are empathic creatures, aren’t they? They know when we are sad. They get excited when we are excited. When we’re ready to take a nap, they’re ready to curl up beside us and do the same. Folk wisdom has long claimed that dogs resemble their owners.

Unfortunately, a recent study shows that overweight dogs and overweight owners often end up together [1]. This is no coincidence. We could call this “sympathy weight,” or we could own up to the fact that we might be passing our bad habits on to our loved ones, the four-legged variety included.

Many of us eat more than we should. Many of us can’t help but share our food with our beloved dogs. Even if we don’t share the actual food, we often tend to share our habits. And it’s not only our eating habits that we share. It can also be our habit of being sedentary. Many of us don’t move as often as we should. We don’t get enough exercise or activity. If we have dogs, chances are, our lack of exercise can translate into their lack of exercise, too.

But there’s good news! A recent study by Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Hill’s Pet Nutrition showed that people and dogs can help each other lose weight! This was the first yearlong study of its type [2, 3]. The “People and Pets Exercising Together (P-PET) Study” split participants into three groups: 36 dog-owners, 53 dogs participating without their owners, and 56 people without dogs. The dogs were fed a healthy, controlled diet. People were given diet plans and pedometers. All participants were given a recommended exercise plan.

Both people and dogs lost weight. And the people who began the challenge with their dogs were more likely to complete the challenge. They also spent, on average, more time each day exercising. Dogs can help people get more exercise and we all know that exercise leads to multiple health
benefits, including weight loss.

Previous studies have shown that people are more successful trying to make healthy changes in their lifestyles if they have a social support network. In fact, those with supportive friends and families are far more likely to be successful. This is why people search for a reliable workout, weightlifting, or walking partner. This is why people spend big bucks to hire a personal trainer, or a personal health coach. Or, they could just turn to their dog for support.

Your dog can serve as this support, this friend, this coach. Your dog is not going to turn you down when you tell him it’s time to go for a walk. In fact, his excitement will probably motivate you. And your dog will never be critical of your efforts. Your dog just might be the best social support available. A study that investigated this theory found that women who reported no company or pet to walk with were 31% less likely to walk [4]. Another study’s results showed that walking with a dog can provide owners with a greater feeling of safety while walking at night or in unsafe areas.

Most people have an innate drive to bond with animals and many people are drawn specifically to dogs. People are wired to crave an intimate bond with the natural world and for many of us, the human-dog bond satisfies this need. For biological, emotional, and social reasons, we bond with our dogs. Engaging in an exercise program with your dog will only increase this bond. As the bond grows, so does the success of the exercise regimen. Habits are difficult to form, but forming said habits as a team makes the challenge far more feasible. There is no downside to spending time with your dog, especially if that time is spent exercising.

Many of us are, by nature, nurturers. Some of us are mothers, some fathers … if you are reading this article, you are probably a dog-parent. Most of us are charged with caring for someone else on some level. And most of us are better at caring for others than we are at caring for ourselves. It is possible that our dog’s health will be more motivational than our own health. Veterinarians claim that obesity is the number one health crisis facing dogs today, leading to problems such as heart disease, diabetes and osteoarthritis. If it is our dog’s welfare and not our own that gets us moving, that’s okay. We’re still moving and that’s what counts.

Other studies have shown dogs to be particularly helpful in fighting obesity and other health-related issues with children [5]. Children who own dogs are less likely to be overweight than those who don’t. One could infer that children with dogs play more than those without. A John Hopkins Medical Institution study found that owning a dog can also help people between the ages of 71-82 to walk more regularly [6].

There seems to be no downside. Dogs need to walk. Humans need to exercise. Both dogs and humans need interaction with other living beings. All of this can happen on the daily walk. Of all the ways to lose weight, walking your dog can be a fairly painless option.

And you’re not limited to walking. Opportunities to exercise with your dog abound. From dancing with your dog to playing frisbee in the park to jogging, your dog is probably up for anything you suggest. Some might consider enrolling their dogs in obedience, rally, or agility classes. Some people teach their dogs to kayak. The point is, everything is easier if you don’t go it alone.

If you are one of those people who may have passed on a few bad habits to your four-legged best friend, you might consider passing on some good ones. Be sure to check with a trusted veterinarian, and your own physician, before beginning any diet or exercise program. Then, treat yourself to a new leash and some new walking shoes, and do some bonding! You just might lose a few pounds while you’re doing it!


1. Overweight in dogs but not in cats is related to overweight in their owners. Marieke L Nijland, Frank Stam and Jacob C Seidell. Public Health and Nutrition 2009, Jun 23:1-5.
2. The PPET Study: People and Pets Exercising Together. Robert F. Kushner, Dawn Jackson Blatner, Dennis E. Jewell, and Kimberly Rudloff, Obesity 2006 October, Vol. 14, No. 10.
3. New study shows people and pets can succeed together in fighting obesity epidemic.
4. Dog ownership, health and physical activity: A critical review of the literature. Hayley Cutt, Billie Giles-Corti, Matthew Knuiman, Valerie Burke. Health & Place (2007) 13; 261–272

5. Is dog ownership or dog walking associated with weight status in children and their parents? Timperio A, Salmon J, Chu B, Andrianopoulos N. Health Promot J Austr. 2008 Apr; 19(1): 60-3.

6. Dog ownership, walking behavior, and maintained mobility in late life. Thorpe RJ Jr, Simonsick EM, Brach JS, Ayonayon H, Satterfield S, Harris TB, Garcia M, Kritchevsky SB. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2006 Sep; 54(9): 1419-24.