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The Scale's Best Friend

Photo credit: Photo Courtesy of Sean Kelley

Want to lose weight? Schedule some active time with your dog.

The first time I met my mother's dog, Lady, she bit my hand, licked my face, and scratch my chest in a singular motion that both defied physics and description. She drew blood while wagging her tail. This was one serious pooch.

My mother found Lady wandering the woods of rural Alabama, covered in ticks and fleas and partially malnourished. Still, she was 40 pounds—nearly half my 72-year-old mother's weight—and full of energy. She had the strength and moves of a rodeo bull and none of the manners. I had visions of my mother being drug around my childhood neighborhood as her new dog chased squirrels, birds, and the neighbor's 1973 F100.

When experts talk about pets being healthy for humans, Lady isn't what they're talking about. Or so I thought. 

Then I took her for a jog. In a 2006 study of people, pets, and obesity, researchers found that diet control and exercise programs that pair overweight people and their overweight pets was an effective, long-term, weight-loss strategy. The study participants, who received dietary counseling, lost 4.7 percent of their body weight over the course of 12 months. Their dogs lost 15 percent. Two-thirds of the participants' physical activity was spent with their dogs. 

"Pets give us something to do with our time in our lives," says Dr. Patrick Mahaney, a veterinarian at California Pet Acupuncture & Wellness. "They get you out of the house. People who exercise with their pets tend to stick with exercise programs longer, and they are healthier as a result."

More recent studies have backed up those findings. Sixty percent of dog owners who take their pets for regular walks meet guidelines for regular moderate or vigorous exercise, one study found. Only about a third of people without dogs get that kind of exercise.

This was true for me for most of 2015. I lost 15 pounds walking and running with my mother's dog—and Lady, who didn't need to lose any weight, gained control and some of those missing manners. She bites me less often these days.