A Well-Trained Dog May Increase Longevity, among Other Benefits

dog ownership brings heart-healthy lifestyle activities

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A study published in an American Heart Association Journal article suggested that dog ownership can lead to a longer life. The evidence is rooted in the increased physical activity that comes with maintaining a pet that needs walking and exercise. Getting started on training a dog is easier than it sounds.

Woman training her dog in green landscape
Dog ownership brings increased physical activity and better health longevity for pet owners. Photo by Alena Ozerova / Shutterstock

The recent study looked at people who had suffered a “major cardiovascular event” like a heart attack and found a possible link between the heart-healthy lifestyle that comes with dog ownership and a longer life expectancy. Wondrium Daily previously reported on a link between dog ownership and broken bones in the elderly, but despite this, overall longevity still seems to be greater with a dog around the house. The background section of the abstract for the article states, “Dog ownership is associated with increased physical activity levels and increased social support, both of which could improve the outcome after a major cardiovascular event. Dog ownership may be particularly important in single-occupancy households where ownership provides substitutive companionship and motivation for physical activity.” To reap these benefits, many future dog owners may just need the first step on the right path to training their pets.

Principles of Dog Training

If you want a companion to share your home, you should know that dog training involves three solid precepts.

“First and foremost, there is no free lunch in dog training,” said Jean Donaldson, Founder and Principal Instructor of the Academy for Dog Trainers. “This principle is all about motivation. You’re going to have to motivate your dog—and not with magical energy or a cult of personality, but concretely.”

Secondly, Donaldson said, it’s vital that a dog feels safe in his or her own environment. If a dog is frightened or wary of their surroundings, the training will go nowhere, end of story. Therefore, a dog’s owner must be adept at recognizing, addressing, and quelling a dog’s fear.

Finally, owners must know that training is a step-by-step process—a gradual building of behaviors. Dogs don’t magically “know” the familiar commands we see their owners give them.

“There are just shades of gray of level of difficulty and shades of gray of probability of the behavior happening when we want it to,” Donaldson said. “The craftier you are at leveraging these three principles, the faster and more effectively you’ll get the job done.”

Good Behavior and Rewards

The first ground rule Donaldson recommends setting is the concept of “no free lunch.” Donaldson said, “All behavior has cost, and there must be offsetting benefit.”

Basically, animals that must choose good behaviors but have unclear reasons as to why do not train as well as animals that have clearly defined expectations and are rewarded for good behavior. “If your dog sits when you want him to, it is entirely because he has some history of the carrot, the stick, or both,” Donaldson said. “Dogs require immediate positive reinforcement—make no mistake. Dogs find most of the stuff we want them to do inherently dumb, and so they […] must be paid to do what we want.”

Donaldson said that no matter the breed of dog, he or she is almost certainly motivated by food, so new owners already have a weapon in their corner—rewarding good behavior with snacks like diced chicken breast. Establishing a link between obedience and reward—and, the most difficult step, denying a reward when the dog fails to obey—involves a positive reinforcement or encouragement of good behavior. This approach is found to be far more effective than only punishing bad behavior, which can confuse or frighten pets.

People own dogs, cats, birds, reptiles, spiders, and other pets to keep them company in the home. Different types of pets respond to different training principles. However, knowing how and where to start can be one of the most important things to learn when it comes to maintaining order in a pet owner’s home. With a little TLC, a friendly little pooch could be your best friend and have the benefit of a longer life for you.

Jean Donaldson contributed to this article. She is the founder and principal instructor of the Academy for Dog Trainers, which has trained and certified more than 700 trainers in evidence-based dog behavior, training, and private behavior counseling since 1999. Ms. Donaldson is a four-time winner of the Dog Writers Association of America’s Maxwell Medallion.