John O'Connor

Harry Truman once said that if you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

The statement was aimed at the sorts of people who work in the nation’s capital. But I think it probably says more about our four-legged companions.

Yes, I may be a tad biased. Then again, I grew up with Pal. Don’t mean to brag, but he was easily the greatest animal on the planet. That being noted, I’ll admit that even lesser canines are still pretty awesome.

There’s a reason you don’t hear about cats, goldfish or potbelly pigs referred to as man’s best friend. They may be fine and suitable pets, but they simply don’t measure up. What other animal comes close when it comes to traits like loyalty, compassion or unconditional love? Dogs also tend to be remarkably forgiving and non-judgmental.

But don’t take my word for it. Take Harvard’s. Canine companionship appears to deliver cardiovascular and psychological benefits, according to the September 2015 Harvard Heart Letter.

Elizabeth Frates, M.D., an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and one of the report’s medical editors, noted that dogs can encourage physical activity among people who traditionally get less exercise, such as senior living residents. For people who haven’t been active for a long time, walking with a dog may reduce the embarrassment they might feel about their appearance or fitness levels.

Previous studies have shown that dog owners have lower blood pressure than non-owners. People with dogs also appear to have less cardiovascular reactivity when they are mentally stressed, meaning their heart rate and blood pressure go up less and return to normal more quickly. Investigators attribute this outcome to a reduction in levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Among older adults in particular, dog ownership seems to confer a sense of well-being. Seems to me those are all good things.

If you don’t already have dogs at your community, this might be a good time to do so. You might be amazed by what dogs can do for your residents—and for you.