This summer I fell head over heels in love with a floppy haired blonde with brown eyes, who loves long Sunday afternoon walks followed by a trip to the local pub. But my husband needn’t worry, because the blonde in question is a 6-month-old cockapoo puppy named Molly.
I grew up with a dog, a scrappy rescue named Sooty who was abandoned at our local vets and wouldn’t have looked out of place in the film Oliver!, and I wanted my own children to experience it as well.
From the outside looking in, adding a dog to an already busy family looks questionable: alongside the juggle of work, school and family, you’re committing yourself to 15 years of daily walks, vets bills and scooping up poo (just as you’re finally enjoying a nappy and potty-free existence). But somehow it works, and even more surprising is how much Molly has changed my life. It’s like having a third baby, but – whisper it – somehow even better.
So I wasn’t surprised to read that scientists have found dog owners live longer. Swedish researchers have gathered information on over 180,000 heart attack and stroke patients. After accounting for factors such as age, existing health issues, marital status and income, the researchers, writing in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, found that heart attack survivors had a 33 per cent lower risk of death in the year after their heart attack if they had a dog, compared to non-dog owners.
Meanwhile, for stroke victims who were dog owners, the risk of death was 27 per cent lower.
“We know that loneliness and sedentary lifestyle is a major risk factor for premature death,” said study co-author Tove Fall, a professor of molecular epidemiology at Uppsala University in Sweden. “Dogs are an excellent motivation for their owners to get outdoors and walk them.”
I lost half a stone within the first month of getting Molly, which I’ve put down to our daily hour-long walks through the fields and forests near our home.
Fall also pointed out that dogs are a good source of social support: “Dog-owners are also reported to have more social interaction with other humans." I’ve made several friends on my dog walks (we don’t know each other’s names and refer to each other as “Molly’s mum” or “Buddy’s dad”): the teacher who gives me advice about schools and introduced me to her teenage daughter who has since become our girls’ much loved babysitter; the 60-something retired grandmother who tells me how to get more work/life balance and what she wished she'd known when she was my age; the lonely widower I sit and chat to about grief (my mother died unexpectedly last year), as our dogs chase each other and play nearby.
Several previous studies have also found dog owners are slimmer, fitter, happier, less likely to get type 2 diabetes, develop allergies, or become depressed.
And then there’s the stress factor: there is something about coming home after a long and weary day to somebody who is so unbelievably pleased to see you. Children and husbands are great, but they want to tell you about their day, they want to know what's for dinner, or whether you bought those light bulbs. A dog is simply thrilled you’re even in the same room as them, and asks for nothing in return.
Molly soaks up the children’s stress too: a tough day negotiating friendships in the playground can immediately be soothed with a friendly game of catch in the garden, or a quiet cuddle on the sofa. She has an instinctive sense for when they're feeling down and will lie across them like a blanket. Come to think of it, she’s like a living, breathing (very fluffy) comfort blanket for the whole family.
In fact, heart health aside, I'd say she's probably the most uncomplicated, joyful thing in my life (sorry kids), and I couldn't imagine life without her.