When the new AKC FIT DOG titling program launched, Larissa O’Donnell jumped on it with her dogs, Ralphie and Finn. Having already competed in Obedience, AKC Rally, and AKC Scent Work, O’Donnell found the dog exercise options in FIT DOG (walking, in particular) of particular interest — not only for her dog’s health, but her health too.
The Health Benefits of Walking Your Dog
“I have congestive heart failure,” she says, “and for this condition, walking is an exercise recommended by doctors. Prior to starting AKC FIT DOG walking, my echocardiogram was at 40%. My most recent test was normal and my cardiologist removed all of my activity restrictions. My doctor asked what I was doing and I told him about working toward the FIT DOG titles. He said, ‘Keep on doing what you’re doing.’ Now I tell everyone that AKC FIT DOG isn’t just for dogs — it helps their people too.”
O’Donnell’s husband works during the week, and he has joined the weekend walks and hikes with the dogs. He can’t wait to find out the next trail that his wife has selected. “I didn’t initially see this as a possible benefit,” O’Donnell says, “but through our AKC FIT DOG activities, I get a way to spend regular quality time with my husband and I love that.”
How about the dogs? Ralphie and Finn also like spending time with the family, and while their overall fitness is improving, O’Donnell reports another clear benefit of their exercise regimen. “After we started walking, I noticed that both dogs seemed to have more energy. They get excited at walk time. When we went to walk near the Atlantic Ocean, they were fascinated with the sea gulls and they came home appearing relaxed, calm, and well-rested. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I think my dogs are a lot happier since we started exercising.”
Links Between Exercise and Dog Mental Health
According to the most current science, it is not O’Donnell’s imagination. While the physical benefits of exercise are well-known, researchers are beginning to identify emotional and mental health benefits as well.
Because there are similarities in the structure of the brains of different species of mammals and how those brains function, researchers are investigating both human and animal models that show the results of exercise on emotional and mental health. Physical exercise triggers the release of a protein called the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is one of the molecules that results in the growth of new brain cells. Animal research has also shown that exercise increases the blood supply to the brain and promotes the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is related to learning and memory.
One animal study gave two groups of rats access to either a running wheel or a treadmill. Both groups showed a better blood supply to their brains after 30 days, while rats who were not active showed no increase. In addition to increasing desirable conditions such as increased blood supply or the growth of new brain cells, exercise can also decrease stress-related hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine.
One popular theory that is now being questioned is that exercise releases a flood of endorphins. These are the hormones in the brain that activate the body’s opiate receptors. They are considered natural pain relievers and mood elevators. The new thinking is that rather than increasing endorphins, exercise increases the concentrations of norepinephrine in the part of the brain related to stress responses. Along with this is the idea that physical activity can trigger the release of dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals can improve an animal’s mood. Whatever the chemicals or hormones that are involved, scientists agree that exercise improves mood.
Staying Active Keeps Your Dog’s Brain Sharp
Matt Kaeberlin, Ph.D., is a researcher at the Dog Aging Project at the University of Washington in Seattle. He studies dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction (which is the name for dog dementia). In a study with more than 15,000 dogs, physical activity was shown to be beneficial for brain function. Inactive dogs were 6.5 times more likely to develop canine cognitive dysfunction than active dogs that were the same age.
Other researchers have also examined the benefits of exercise. Breer Gordon, Ph.D., is an exercise psychology researcher at the Penn State College of Medicine, and studies the effects of exercise on mental health conditions such as anxiety. According to Gordon, exercise can improve mood almost immediately.
So, the summary statement on exercise is that it not only greatly improves physical health (of you and your dog), but it can improve mental health as well. For you and your dog to be happy, it may be as simple as starting with daily walks. Take the advice of O’Donnell’s cardiologist: Take two dogs for a walk, and no need to call him in the morning.