How to be a happy dog owner

March 28, 2021

How can dogs help to improve our health? We invited human-animal interaction expert and author of the book The Happy Dog Owner, Dr Carri Westgarth to explain how you can find health and happiness with the help of your dog. 

If the media are to be believed, owning a dog is the perfect antidote to the crises of obesity, depression and now even coping with a pandemic. However, a deep dive into the actual scientific research, such as that conducted by myself at the University of Liverpool, and other human-animal interaction colleagues across the world, shows a less conclusive or rosy picture. What is often forgotten is that owning a dog often comes with stresses of its own. It is important that owners have realistic expectations of the benefits that dog ownership will bring, and know how to put in the work needed to achieve them.

Do dogs improve our physical health?

“A handful of studies also suggest that people become more physically active after getting a dog.”

The answer is probably. Many different studies now conclude that dog owners are, on average, more physically active than people without dogs. A handful of studies also suggest that people become more physically active after getting a dog, suggesting it is not just that more active people choose to get dogs. Physical activity is a ‘best buy’ for public health, thus it is not surprising that some studies suggest that cardiovascular disease and mortality is also reduced in dog owners (but some studies found no difference. This increased physical activity does not necessarily lead to reduced risk of obesity either – there is more to weight gain than just your physical activity levels, such as food intake. Dog ownership also creates risks, such as dog bites, which are currently increasing in adults (but stable in children).

Do dogs improve our mental health?

“Our dogs may help comfort us when we are feeling down, but they aren’t a panacea for all of life’s problems.”

The answer is possibly not – at least only in certain contexts and under particular circumstances. Whether dog ownership reduces the risk of depression or anxiety is inconclusive, in fact a number of studies suggest that dog owners are MORE depressed than people without a dog. This may be due to certain people being more attracted to dog ownership in the first place though. Our dogs may help comfort us when we are feeling down, but they aren’t a panacea for all of life’s problems that can lead to depression. Studies do show that dog ownership increases social interaction though, and often people who have a dog feel less lonely, due to the companionship the dog provides but also their interactions with other people it creates.

What can you do to maximise the benefits, and minimise the risks of dog ownership?

“Reward-based training also builds trust between the dog and owner.”

Prevention is better than cure. Many aspects of your dog’s health and behaviour are set before you ever lay eyes on your dog. Thus it is very important to source a puppy from a good breeder, who has socialised their puppies well in the first few weeks, and make sure you check the temperament of the puppies’ parents. Puppies bred in large kennels or ‘puppy farms’ should be avoided, but this can be harder than you think to detect. Your puppy also needs appropriate active socialisation and training when they come home with you. Unfortunately many puppies bought during the pandemic have struggled due to lack of this and are now presenting with behavioural problems.

Are you approaching training the right way? Some dog training advice focuses on stopping the dog from doing the unwanted behaviour – teaching what not to do. This can lead to the over-use of punishment, resulting in dogs that either ignore the owner or become fearful and aggressive. Instead, focus on rewarding the good behaviour and teaching your dog what to do in each situation (how are they supposed to know otherwise?). It’s easy to forget to tell our dogs when they are doing the right thing, when they are not getting our attention. Reward-based training also builds trust between the dog and owner. Contrary to what some trainers peddle, this does not mean dogs aren’t given boundaries and can do whatever they like. Instead dogs are shown what behaviour is acceptable, and redirected into doing that instead of being repeatedly punished for doing the wrong thing, just because they don’t know any better.

Can you walk with your dog more? Both the physical and mental health benefits dog owners extoll are highly dependent on whether they actually go out walking with the dog. It’s not just good for your physical activity level, but is stress relieving too. Obviously this depends on whether walking is enjoyable, and training a good recall and loose-lead walking is vital. 

How can you build the best relationship with your dog?

“Set your dog up for success as much as possible. Don’t wait for him to make a mistake then tell him off for it.”

All of the above advice will help you to build a relationship of trust and mutual appreciation of the joys of life with your dog. Set your dog up for success as much as possible. Don’t wait for him to make a mistake then tell him off for it. Instead, set the situation up so that your dog naturally gravitates towards making the correct choice, and then you can reward it. For example, give them an appropriate and exciting chew toy before they find things they shouldn’t be chewing and remember to keep inviting things like your laptop cable out of reach.

The rule of three will also help you keep the balance right: for every one time your dog practices the wrong behaviour, reward three times for the correct behaviour; for every one time your dog has a frightening experience, make sure he has three pleasurable experiences to make up for it; for every one time your dog stresses you out (it will happen!), make sure you have three fun, rewarding interactions with your dog so that on balance, you are a happy dog owner.

Dr Carri Westgarth is Senior Lecturer in Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Liverpool. She has appeared on BBC Breakfast, BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live sharing her expertise on dogs. Her research has been featured in the Guardian, the New York Times and New Scientist. Carri also consults on pet behaviour for companies including Forthglade Pet Foods and Royal Mail.Her new book, The Happy Dog Owner, is published on 15th April 2021 by Welbeck.