Furry trainers make healthier humans

Colleen Macuk shed 50 pounds, and she did it without expensive diet powders, sweaty aerobics classes or a gym membership. But she did have two personal trainers. Their names are Bubba and Kya.

Kya is an Australian shepherd and Bubba is a sharpei-pitbull mix. Macuk, manager of the Jackson County Animal Control Center, lost her excess poundage simply by doing what her trainers demanded: dog-walking.

Did you know?

About 25 percent to 40 percent of all dogs in this country are overweight or obese, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. Just as it is in humans, excess weight is associated with health problems including heart disease, arthritis and breathing problems.

Walking 20 minutes each day will burn off 7 pounds of body fat per year.

To burn off one plain M&M candy, you need to walk the full length of a football field. Think about that next time you dip your hand into a candy bowl at someone’s office.

Longer, moderately-paced daily walks (40 minutes at 60 to 65 percent maximum heart rate) are best for losing weight. Shorter, faster walks (20-25 minutes at 75 to 85 percent maximum heart rate) are best for conditioning your heart and lungs.

“It is one of the easiest and most relaxing ways to lose weight. I’d recommend it to everyone,” she says.

Macuk isn’t the only one treading this furry, wet-nosed path to better health.

According to a study conducted at the University of Missouri-Columbia, dogs can help you lose more weight than any diet on the market. During the study, dog walkers lost an average of 14 pounds per year, compared to eight pounds for dieters.

The study spurred creation of a “Walk a hound, lose a pound” program at the University of Missouri-Columbia’s College of Veterinary Medicine Research Center on Human Animal Interaction (ReCHAI). The program has proven to be a productive weight-loss method.

“Our goal was to look for ways to increase the average exercise regimen, and we found being responsible for a pet, such as committing to walk a loaner dog, encouraged people who did not own dogs to walk more often and for longer periods of time,” says Rebecca Johnson, an associate professor of nursing and the director of ReCHAI.

The study had two groups walking their dogs for 26 and 50 weeks. The 26-week group showed minimal weight change, but the 50-week group lost significant poundage.

Both groups proved that simple interaction with a pet can alter your body chemistry, resulting in better overall health.

If this study proves out over the long term, the results in Oregon alone could be mind-boggling. Thirty-eight percent of Oregonians own at least one dog, which translates into roughly 750,000 dog owners. If every one of those owners lost 14 pounds from walking their dogs, the populace would shed 10.5 million pounds in the next year.

That’s a significant chunk of chub.

“If people are compassionate about their dogs’ health, they will be about their own,” says Medford resident Sheila Benson, who owns two standard poodles named Cosmo and JoJo. “Dogs are like children. You have to keep them busy and healthy.”

Heide Seeman and Rachelle Schaaf, interviewed as they walked their dogs, say walking is great for their pooches’ health, but also good for them.

“If I didn’t have my two dogs, I would not be walking as much as I do,” admits Seeman.

Schaaf says her three dogs keep her motivated to exercise daily, which keeps her stress level down.

Some dog experts say the health benefits of being walked by your dog come from more than just the physical exercise. Part of the benefit stems from an emotional bond that somehow facilitates weight loss.

Robin and Lisa Gerard, who run a dog-training business in Medford called “Bark Busters,” are the people who clued us into the dog-walking study at ReCHAI. They say the emotional bond created with a pet can motivate people to stick with their daily exercise routines.

Of course, a pooch with behavioral problems can do the opposite by adding stress to a household. The Gerards employ natural methods to train dogs into responsible and obedient pets, and help form solid communication concepts between dog and owner.

“Walking your dog is a great socialization tool that develops a quality relationship with your dog and other dog owners,” says Lisa Gerard. “Enhancing the bond with your dog will lead to safe, fun walks and soothe our sometimes chaotic lifestyles.”

If you don’t own a dog, the Jackson County Animal Control Center can help you be a surrogate dog walker. Macuk says the shelter is always looking for volunteers to help walk the dogs, as well as people who want to become adoption counselors.