These Super Sunday puppies aren't just adorable, they can be good for health

By American Heart Association News

Cavan Images, Getty Images
(Cavan Images, Getty Images)

It's hard to believe, but America's favorite puppy wrangler used to live in a housing development that didn't allow pets.

"They lifted the ban a few years ago and all of a sudden everything changed," said Dan Schachner, a New York-based actor and official referee of Animal Planet's Puppy Bowl who fosters dogs for adoption. "People go outside more. They get more exercise. I know my neighbors better. The whole culture is more friendly."

Research over the years indicates dogs contribute to human heart health in various ways, from encouraging physical activity and fighting depression to lowering blood pressure and reducing isolation in older people. A meta-analysis published last year in the journal Circulation examined 70 years of studies and concluded dog owners were likely to live longer than their petless peers.

For the uninitiated, the Puppy Bowl has been a TV staple on Super Bowl Sunday since 2005. Adorable dogs from shelters around the country scamper around a model stadium with chew toys. A striped-shirted Schachner, the "rufferree," spouts pun-laden commentary about linebarkers, running barks and unnecessary ruffness.

Spoiler alert: They all get adopted. For canines and humans, it's win-win, and dog lovers don't need stacks of medical research to confirm that.

"You see how dogs change lives," said Sean Napoles, a sales executive in Plano, Texas, who trains puppies to become service dogs. "It's all about the bond people have with their dog."

Napoles and his wife, Stacy, are currently raising their 12th dog for Canine Companions for Independence, which provides service animals for adults, children and veterans with disabilities.

"People are depressed, they're down, then they get this furball of love, and it opens up so many doors," he said. "It calms people down, gives them incentives to push through pain, it gives them a reason to wake up every morning."

Through personal contact and social media, the couple has kept up with their trainees after the dogs "graduated" to permanent homes. Napoles gets choked up talking about a dog who inspired a child with cerebral palsy to put aside his walker, an autistic child who began to speak after bonding with his dog, and a disabled Marine whose life turned around.

"He didn't have any reason to get up anymore," Napoles said. "The dog just gives him a whole new lease on life and allows him to have a completely full life."

Larry Powell has chronicled the people-pet connection for decades as a newspaper columnist and blogger, with heart-melting anecdotes and testimonials about the importance of animal companions.

"I wish I could explain how much comfort there is to having a dog or cat handy when you're in a period of stress or distress," said Powell, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas.

During a bout with pneumonia two years ago, he said his lovable mutt, Porche, "got in the bed next to me and wouldn't even leave to have a meal."

"She probably was thinking she's in the will," Powell joked.

The health benefits of dogs last a lifetime, said Dr. JoAnn Taurog, a retired veterinarian in Mendota Heights, Minnesota, who takes her standard poodle, Olivia, to visit seniors in assisted living and hospice.

One of the people on Olivia's regular rounds was a woman named Helen, who would sit face-to-face with the dog as if in conversation.

"Helen confided in me that she had bad pain, but that when Olivia visited, she said, 'I don't hurt,'" Taurog said.

One day, as they were leaving, she reassured Helen that they'd be back soon.

"Helen was thrilled to hear that," Taurog said. "She told Olivia, 'You're better for me than all the doctors and all the medicine.'"

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