Studies have shown, and plenty of them, that pets of the canine variety are so good for our health, happiness and longevity that if medical science could have seen it coming, they would have found a way for doctors to prescribe dogs.

The earliest studies, back in the 1980s, focused on hanging-with-dog time to reduce stress, improve blood pressure and bring a bloom to one’s cheeks. More recent studies have revealed more specific rewards such as this: dieters who walk dogs lose more weight than dieters walking with no more stimulation than an iPod — or even a friend. Not only did the calorie-conscious dogwalkers shed more pounds than poochless paraders, the dogs slimmed down as well.

This week a new study reported in the New York Times posed the question: “Is it better to walk a person or walk a dog?” Research from the University of Missouri demonstrated that dog walkers developed greater fitness than people who walk people (thus putting a whole new spin on that Barbra Streisand song; it’s people who love dogs who are “the luckiest people in the world”). Out of 23 participants, the 12 dog walkers showed a 28 per cent boost in speed, the person to person walkers a mere 4 per cent. The biggest reason for this discrepancy is that human companions collude more readily in skipping out of exercise altogether, i.e. “It’s so hot today,let’s bag the walk, okay?” One of the researchers pointed out that never in the world has there been a dog who turned down a walk.

As Dr. Robert Kushner of Northwestern Medical School explained, “The enjoyment factor [with dogs] . . . is what sets this plan apart from others.” Another researcher enthused about volunteers at a city animal shelter bouncing off the bus to eagerly cry, “Where’s my dog?!”

Dog therapy programs are now commonplace in hospitals. People who still buy into the myth that dogs carry an open sewer of germs might wonder why hospitals, with their population of immune system sensitive patients, welcome dog saliva, dander and every other phylum of dog cootie into their wards.

Recreational therapist and dog therapy innovator (and also this reporter’s sister) Cynthia Mascott, formerly of Windemere in Oak Bluffs, now operating out of of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Burbank, Calif., explained: “We request that the licensed dog therapists bathe their pets before each visit. We also hand out sanitary wipes to the participating patients before and after each visit.”

Ms. Mascott described some remarkable transformations in patients: “The other day an elderly female patient had been so depressed following heart surgery that she hadn’t spoken to anyone for days. Then when an adorable King Charles spaniel appeared, the patient’s face lit up, and she started babbling happily to the dog. After that she was cheerful for the rest of her stay.”

Are you convinced that dog-time will do you a vast amount of good but, alas, you have no velvet-eyed, tail-wagger to call your own? Well, then, you may be ripe to sign up for dog-walking duty at the Martha’s Vineyard Animal Shelter in Edgartown. A plea has been put out for more volunteers and, if the above studies are accurate, participants may find their health and happiness shooting through the roof (be sure to wear a helmet).

Where to Walk the Dog

Once you present yourself for a jaunt or two or more a week, your destination choices are many. The easiest is to follow the bike path leading into town, but you can also pack your new best friend in your car and drive to any one of the paths itemized in Walking Trails of Martha’s Vineyard, published by the Vineyard Conservation Society, now in its 45th year of operation.

Many of the paths are dog-friendly, at least for three-quarters of the year. This excellent little guide, which fits snugly into a jacket pocket, will provide all the details of parking, bus accessibility (the VTA allows dogs on buses as long as they’re leashed and well-behaved), and all the splendid natural sites you’ll come upon when you get there.

A favorite spot for dog walkers is the Trade Wind Fields Preserve. Nominally it’s still a working airfield, but landings are rare, and single-prop planes bumping into dogs or humans are unheard of. Various wilderness paths feed into the open field, but you can also motor half a mile up County Road in Oak Bluffs north from the four-way stop at Barnes and Wing Roads. Parking lies down a dirt lane on your left.

On a sunny day you and your dog will encounter happy packs of other dogs while you and the other owners can watch the fur-balls romp, as your conversation revives the days of kindergarten mom-hood and pop-hood. (Note to spiritual seekers: there’s an effortless ego death to this outing; it’s all about the dogs; in fact the humans, unless they already know you from some other context, will probably never learn your name, only your dog’s.)

As for dog friendly beaches, in the winter, you can take your walk buddy virtually everywhere. But for the most fastidious law-abiders among us, the chamber of commerce Web site recommends the following beaches: Eastville (the public part of the beach just to the north and east of the drawbridge), State Beach and Norton Point. From Jan. 1 to March 31, and then again from Sept. 16 to Dec. 31, there are no restrictions imposed on dogs. From April 1 through Sept. 15, dogs are prohibited on beaches (and also within 100 yards of posted nesting sites) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Director Lisa Hayes reports that it’s also perfectly okay to drop in and drop out again with a pooch at the end of a leash. The shelter is open from Wednesday through Saturday (the best and busiest day, when help is most needed), from 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays and on Saturday from 8:30 to 4 p.m.

There are at this time two resident shelter dogs who are over-the-moon with joy at the prospect of being walked: P.J., a female, brindle-colored Staffordshire terrier who loves people and will win you over the minute you meet her, and Vito, a male, neutered beagle — and if we have to tell you that beagles are cute, you’ve never read the Peanuts comic strip.

“We always find the perfect home for our dogs,” says Ms. Hayes.

In the meantime these critters would love to walk with you.


To book a play date with an Animal Shelter dog, call 508-627-8662.