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Get Healthy, Get a Dog

3 thinking dogs

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 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 literature 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! A long-needed official seal of approval for the dog-human partnership.

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 even include the titles of the studies or their authors’ names — no details that could help readers even begin tracking down all this great scientific, peer-reviewed literature that demonstrates the benefits of life with dogs. To me, that is just sloppy and incomplete work. No one at Harvard would accept a student paper that lacked a complete list of references! Why should purchasers of this report accept such a glaring omission?

One feature of the health-benefits section that I particularly like is the section titled “What if you can’t own a dog?” Acknowledging that not everyone can be a dog owner, yet still offering suggestions for how those poor, deprived souls can still get some benefit from canine company, is a very nice touch. The section includes some great ideas that trainers, shelter personnel, or other dog lovers could build on in their own communities. But again, these ideas come from the studies … if only we could find all those great studies to get more details …

The section on service dogs lacks both depth and accuracy. It describes guide dogs and “therapy” dogs, but confuses therapy dogs and service dogs in its discussion. The report provides a partial list of U.S. guide dog schools and mentions two places where service dogs are trained, though the text states that these organizations “have been created to meet the need for animal-assisted therapy” — which is something else entirely. And the definition provided for “service dogs” includes military canines, search-and-rescue dogs, and dogs who sniff for explosives; these are not service dogs. I don’t think it is unreasonable to expect the authors to provide an accurate definition of a service dog or to distinguish between service dogs and other working dogs. Again, I doubt that anyone at Harvard would accept such sloppy work from a student.

The article I had read had enthused that the report “approaches the dog/human relationship as a two-way street” with half devoted the responsibilities and obligations of a dog owner. I was looking forward to that long-overdue balance in a paper on dogs and humans. And the report does address the dog’s needs … sort of. The “responsible dog ownership” portion of the report is very superficial and feels dated to me; it’s got a lot of the kind of info that appears in syndicated pet columns in newspapers. The discussion of nutrition, for example, talks about kibble or canned food, as if those are the only options — and as if all kibbles (or canned foods) are equivalent. In a very brief mention of supplementing with “home cooking,” we’re warned to thoroughly cook  “all meats, fish, and fowl.” Our understanding of canine nutrition has progressed very far beyond the basic treatment offered here. No mention of raw diets, for example. And, despite a thorough discussion of dog obesity, an (pardon the pun) enormous and growing problem, the report’s 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.)

The lengthy section on exercising with your dog is pretty good and includes important information. I wish teaching a dog to heel on leash worked as described in the half-page sidebar, though. They make it sound so easy! And the list of suggested exercise activities is a bit odd — the expected walking, running, hiking, swimming (not together), agility, fetch — and skijoring? A half-page on skijoring? They are in Massachusetts, but even so … What about flyball, treibball, scent work, freestyle, Rally, dock diving … the list really could go on and on — and include activities that most readers have actually heard of.

I take considerable issue with the section titled “Raising a well-behaved dog.” The authors briefly mention Stanley Coren’s work and refer to a Hungarian fMRI study, but no mention is made of Gregory Berns’ fMRI studies or the groundbreaking work of Alexandra Horowitz and Brian Hare, who are among the top dog cognition experts in the world — in fact, not a single American academic dog expert is mentioned anywhere in the report. The report also neglects the dozens of non-academic dog experts who have plenty to say on how to raise a well-behaved dog, which this section does not address effectively at all.

Ostensibly about teaching manners, this section trots out the tired, dated, and absurd contention that “it’s now recognized a dog’s mind is comparable to that of a toddler between ages 2 and 3” (with no citation). Really? Recognized by whom? In what ways are they comparable? How many toddlers can guide visually impaired people (or themselves, for that matter) safely across the street or detect cancer or find a missing person? Surely Harvard Medical School researchers understand the illogic of comparing intelligence across species.

The paper concludes with a short and not comprehensive list of dog resources, primarily an odd collection of dog-related organizations, and a brief glossary (which defines skijoring but not service dog). I well understand the impossibility of compiling an exhaustive list of resources, but a better, more coherent list could easily be provided, as well as a list of the studies and books cited.


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