That Shaggy Mutt? At Dog Museums, Our Drooling Companions Are the Stars

Below are a few museums around the world devoted exclusively to our canine friends. At this rate, cats may start to wonder what’s up.

Dackelmuseum, Passau, Germany

Mr. Küblbeck and Oliver Storz have been collecting dachshund memorabilia for a quarter-century. But the bulk of the collection — about 3,500 items — was acquired from a Belgian musician who sold it because he was getting married, Mr. Storz said. An array of books, drawings and porcelain figurines are now crowded into overstuffed display cases.

One object of note: a Waldi, the first official Olympic mascot, created for the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. (It’s a plush toy.) Dachshunds, which were bred in the Middle Ages to flush badgers out of their burrows, are the 13th most popular dog breed, according to the American Kennel Club. Fans including Pablo Picasso and Albert Einstein.

American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog, Queeny Park, Mo.

Just in case Park Avenue didn’t already have enough dogs on display: Next year, the American Kennel Club Museum of the Dog is moving from its current home in suburban St. Louis to a ground floor gallery space in the Kalikow building, in Midtown Manhattan. The museum has more than 700 works of art, including paintings, porcelain figurines and sculptures, many donated to the museum by members of the club.

Alan Fausel, the club’s director of cultural resources, said the new museum would focus more on education and children’s programming. “We want to get the museum to a different audience,” he said. “We want to tell the story of the dog, and we can do that through our collection.”

Barryland, Musée et Chiens du Saint-Bernard, Matigny, Switzerland

Where else would one find a museum to honor the St. Bernard? Matigny is situated at the Great St. Bernard Pass in the Pennine Alps, where for centuries travelers have been greeted by the loyal dogs, known for their prowess in avalanche rescues. Monks bred St. Bernards in the late 17th century for work and to aid travelers overwhelmed by harsh winter conditions.

The museum, founded in 2006, is next to a Roman amphitheater and houses portrayals of the creatures in literature, art and culture. The main attraction, though, might be the dogs themselves, which can be petted and observed in their kennels on the first floor.

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Canines on display at the Museum of Dog in North Adams, Mass. It opened in March. Credit Museum of Dog

Dog Collar Museum, Leeds Castle, Kent, England

In 1977, Gertrude Hunt donated a collection of more than 60 dog collars to the Leeds Castle Foundation in memory of her husband, John Hunt, an antiques dealer and scholar of Irish history. They became the centerpiece of a collection that includes more than 130 rare collars from the late 15th to the 19th century. The oldest is a Spanish mastiff’s iron collar, worn to protect dogs against bears and wolves that roamed the European countryside.

Collars from the medieval era are studded with spikes and barbed metal. Later, in the 1800s, canine neckwear became more ornate as more dogs moved indoors and became companions and pets. Pieces from the collection include an intricate gilded collar from the Baroque period, a set of engraved silver collars from the 19th century, and a display of neckwear with owners’ markings. More modern collars are laden with beads and gemstones.

Museum of Dog, North Adams, Mass.

David York loves pooches a lot. So much so, in fact, that he opened a dog museum last month in the Berkshires. For the Museum of Dog, situated in a historic building near the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, Mr. York has assembled more than 180 pieces of art, including works by Mary Engel, a sculptor from Athens, Ga., and William Wegman, whose popular photographs of his Weimaraners are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.

Metal dog collars are prized collectibles among dog lovers; Mr. York has two from the 1800s. Most of the museum’s collection is owned by Mr. York, a rescue dog advocate. But he said the museum would also feature work by visiting artists. The first is Jesse Freidin, a fine art photographer who takes pictures of — what else? — dogs.

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Aisles of Dogs

SAN FRANCISCO — It was Charlie Bucket’s first trip to the movies, and he dressed up for the occasion. Looking sharp in a flowered bow tie, he glanced around the historic theater and took in his surroundings. Then, without warning, he tried to crawl under the stage.

Charlie, an 18-month-old Yorkie-cairn terrier mix, was one of many first-timers at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco on Monday night. The theater was holding a sneak preview of Wes Anderson’s new film, “Isle of Dogs,” with a particularly appropriate twist — the screening was B.Y.O.D., or Bring Your Own Dog.

Outside the sold-out event, pups posed for photographs on a red carpet before heading into the 234-seat theater to find their spot.

“Dogs get the seats,” said Isabel Fondevila, the Roxie’s director of programming. “And we have a lint roller ready for after.”

But as the theater filled up, the seats proved a bit challenging for some of the guests. Leila, a 7-month-old Chihuahua-cocker spaniel mix in a pink-and-red-striped sweater, couldn’t seem to get comfortable. No matter which way she turned, something more interesting was happening in the other direction. And when she twisted around to sniff the theater behind her, the seat popped up, folding her inside.

“She’s too light,” said Emily Happe, 21, scooping Leila onto her lap.

Scout, a 7-year-old Yorkie-terrier mix, was too excited to sit at all. She sniffed around on the ground, pointedly ignoring Danielle Hobart, 30, who patted a seat, trying to encourage Scout to hop up.

“She’s a suburban country dog; she likes chasing sheep,” said Ms. Hobart, who borrowed Scout from her father-in-law for the movie. “This is all new.”

Monday’s event was conceived by Andrea Bertolini, a senior account executive with Allied Integrated Marketing, which is publicizing “Isle of Dogs.” The stop-motion film, opening nationwide on Friday, is set in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki, where all the dogs have been banished to a dump called Trash Island. Ms. Bertolini said she knew as soon as she saw the trailer that she wanted to hold a dog-friendly screening.

“I thought, ‘Who would be amenable?’ A lot of chain theaters probably would have said, ‘Have a nice day,’” Ms. Bertolini said. (There are also dog-friendly screenings scheduled this weekend in British theaters.)

But the people at the Roxie Theater were excited about the idea — and they had experience. For the last two years, the New York Dog Film Festival has traveled to the theater, which has welcomed canine customers alongside their humans.

“We love dogs,” Ms. Fondevila said. “We had no doubts.”

Inside the theater, Iko, a 9-year-old Shiba Inu, wasn’t quite as sure. Shawn Hatfield, 44, held Iko on his lap.

“I think he’s just trying to figure out if this is the vet or not,” Mr. Hatfield said. “He sees lots of people and dogs. I think he’s waiting for needles.”

And the night’s official host, a one-eyed bichon-Shih Tzu rescue named Pirate with a skull-and-crossbones pendant hanging from his collar, was also battling nerves.

“It’s certainly his first time hosting a premiere,” his owner Samantha Martin, 44, said.

Ms. Martin runs Pirate’s Instagram account. Her husband, Greg McQuaid, 48, used to work with Ms. Bertolini, who asked if Pirate would lend his celebrity to the event.

As show time approached, Mr. McQuaid and Pirate made their way to the stage, accompanied by Kristin Hoff, adoptions manager at Muttville, a senior dog rescue organization in San Francisco, and Ms. Hoff’s foster dog, Ela. There, they made a pitch for adopting older dogs, and then Mr. McQuaid reminded human attendees that dogs should be taken outside if they became aggressive or upset. Even Pirate might need a break.

“He’s kind of a grumpy old man,” Mr. McQuaid said. “He hates joy and merriment of any kind, so we’re not sure a Wes Anderson film is the best choice.” Pirate wagged his tail.

In the second row, Winston, an 18-month-old cocker spaniel mix, sat up and panted at them. Leila, worn out from all the excitement with her seat, was falling asleep in Ms. Happe’s lap. Toward the back of the theater, Charlie Bucket settled in and waited for the show to start. Someone growled, just a little. The lights dimmed.

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Why Scientists Love to Study Dogs (and Often Ignore Cats)

I had gotten to know Dr. Karlsson a bit while reporting on research she was doing on wolves. I asked her whether there was indeed more research on dogs than cats, and if so, why?

“Ooo, that is an interesting question!” she wrote back. “Way more interesting than the various grant-related emails that are filling up my inbox.

“The research has lagged behind in cats. I think they’re taken less seriously than dogs, probably to do with societal biases. I have a vet in my group who thinks that many of the cancers in cats may actually be better models for human cancer, but there has been almost no research into them.”

Better models than cancers in dogs, that is. Dogs do get many of the same cancers as humans, but in dogs the risk for these cancers often varies by breed, which narrows the target down when looking for the cause of a disease.

More Reporting on Cats

Furthermore, said Dr. Karlsson, cat behavior gets no respect.

“Non-cat people tend to laugh at the idea of studying behavioral genetics in cats, and the animal training world complains that people tend to dismiss cats as untrainable.”

Cats, of course, can be trained just as any animal can. Dr. Karlsson unwittingly trained her cat to hop up on the counter when she opened the door of a cabinet containing goodies.

And commerce has recognized cat trainability. There are several models of toilet training kits to teach cats to use human toilets. If such kits exist for dogs, I couldn’t find them. Not even for Bichon frises.

And as to the cancers, Dr. Karlsson said Kate Megquier, a veterinarian working on a Ph.D. at the Broad Institute in cancer genomics thought cat cancers deserved more attention.

Dr. Megquier said “I’ve been studying a lot of the dog cancers,” but that there are reasons studying certain naturally occurring cancers in cats could be valuable.

They get a lot of cancers called lymphomas, she said, and “they certainly have something to teach us about lymphomas.” They also get oral cancers similar to ones humans get and it’s possible, she said, that these might be related to environmental toxins they pick up while grooming themselves.

Investigating that possibility “could give us some insight into these cancers,” she said, helping pets and people. Dr. Megquier likes dogs, but is, by her own account, “definitely a cat person.”

Dr. Karlsson said that there are good reasons dogs are studied so intensively. There are many more dog breeds — about 400 compared to about 40 cat breeds. That means more genetic diversity, and better tools for studying genomes.

She did note, however, that a new reference cat genome is more detailed than the most recent dog genome.

“We’re all hugely jealous of it, and had to put up with lots of teasing from the cat geneticists at the meeting I was at last week,” she said.

Photo

Credit Kim Murton

Cultural attitudes toward pets creep into research even in the organization of scientific meetings, Dr. Karlsson pointed out. Putting the two animals together as the subject of a meeting is more related to their status as the iconic human pets rather than biological similarity.

My next email was to Elaine Ostrander, at the National Institutes of Health, who both owns pet dogs and studies dog genetics.

Her lab has identified eight genes that play a big role in determining dog size, the first being one important for making dogs small. The lab has also identified cancer genes shared by human beings and dogs. In particular, her lab identified a genetic cause of a kidney disease common to German shepherds before the same gene was shown to cause the same cancer in people.

Dr. Ostrander replied to my email by noting the attraction to science of the many different dog breeds and the vast range in dog size and shape. Some of the genes that affect growth, she said, affect “diseases of growth gone awry, like cancer.”

In addition, she wrote, “dogs have undergone this really striking bottleneck during domestication,” in which a few ancestral wolves gave rise to all domestic dogs. Later on Victorians produced many breeds that have even narrower bottlenecks, with much inbreeding.

Domestication, she said, has “happened in an amazingly short period of time and we don’t understand all the genetics associated with it. It remains one of the most interesting and challenging questions in biology.”

Some dogs suffer from behavioral problems that look similar to human problems like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Those similarities, Dr. Ostrander said, provide “a great avenue for learning more about ourselves.”

That pretty much stated the case for dogs, I thought. Next, I called one of the main people responsible for the recent cat genome Dr. Karlsson was talking about, Leslie Lyons at the University of Missouri.

I asked her about there being more research on dogs than cats.

“That’s absolutely true,” she said, “for several different reasons.”

She agreed that the “the dog is a great model for cancers,” she said. It’s also true they have been domesticated longer than cats, and have more breeds, thus having a greater potential for studying inherited diseases.

More Reporting on Dogs

But she also said there are social reasons having to do with popular attitudes toward cats that spill over into the realm of research. She said cat lovers are not as interested as dog lovers in fancy breeds — yet. Cats could be bred in many different shapes and sizes like dogs, she said, if there were interest. “We could have a Chihuahua cat and a Great Dane cat,” although, she said, “I think that would be a little dangerous.”

She said research funds are much harder to obtain for cats, even though cats are superior to other animals for studying some diseases, like polycystic kidney disease, or PKD. “Let’s put them in drug trials. We could fix the cats and we could fix humans.” Dr. Lyons keeps cats as pets and did mention, in an offhand way, during our conversation the common observation that “Cats rule, dogs drool.”

I also called Fiona Marshall, a bioarchaeologist at Washington University in St. Louis. We had spoken a while ago for an article I did on donkeys. The domestication of donkeys is only one of her areas of interest. She also studies African cats and cat domestication and was one of the authors of a paper several years ago that dated the first evidence of domestic cats to a 5,300-year-old site in China.

She said that cats are rarer than dogs in archaeological sites, partly because they’re solitary and they don’t seem to have been eaten as much by ancient humans.

“If they’re not eaten, you don’t find them in waste piles,” she said.

“I also think that there is a bias as a result of medieval to later European views of cats,” she said. “Cats were considered to be bad animals because they didn’t do what humans said.” And yet, that is the source of their appeal now for many people. Dr. Marshall herself has pet cats.

And now the numbers: A search of Pub Med, a database that includes most biomedical journals, yielded 139,858 results for cats and 328,781 results for dogs. Google scholar results were 1,670,000 for cats and 2,850,000 for dogs. These are simple searches, of course, and don’t say much about the kind of research that was undertaken.

As for journalism, my searches on the news database Nexis for dogs and cats kept returning more than 3,000 hits, which my screen warned me would take a long time to retrieve. So I settled for searches of “dog genome” and “cat genome.” The result, 20 for dogs, 6 for cats. The dog genome was sequenced before the cat genome.

I would caution against concluding anything based on this haphazard browsing other than that the results do back up the researchers’ sense that there’s more research on dogs.

Also, a colleague raised a question that didn’t occur to a single expert I interviewed, which shows that devotion to science can sometimes limit your point of view.

“Is it possible,” my friend, who has had both cats and dogs, asked, “that there are more dog studies because the cats won’t consent?”

Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

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Need a Date? First, Get a Dog

It’s a signal that the man may make not only a good friend but a good parent, she said.

“That’s the bottom line message that women get when they see a man with a dog: He’s capable of nurturing, of giving without receiving a lot, of caring for another. He’s made a commitment to this animal,” Dr. Fisher said. “And one thing women have needed for years and years is a partner who could share the load, be responsible, care for them if they’re sick and show up on time.” (Just for the record, Mr. Morrill is happily married and not in the market for a relationship).

Gay men and women with pets can communicate the same character traits to potential mates, who will evaluate and appreciate them in a similar manner, said Daniel J. Kruger, a research professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor who studies human mating strategies. “The kind of benefits you see in terms of increasing the perception that someone is reliable and caring — I think those are generalized across everybody,” he said.

There’s ample research to demonstrate that the messages sent by dog ownership influences others’ judgment and behavior.

One study that asked volunteers to rate people based on photographs found that they ranked someone as happier, safer and more relaxed when they appeared with a dog.

In another series of experiments, men had more luck getting a woman’s phone number if they had a dog with them, and both men and women had more luck panhandling when they had a dog with them.

Another study found that when women heard vignettes about men who acted like “cads” who were uninterested in a long-term commitment, they rated the men more highly if they owned a dog.

For single people who own pets — and more and more young singles do — pet ownership may even make or break a relationship, according to a 2015 survey that Dr. Fisher and her colleagues conducted among more than 1,200 Match.com pet-owning subscribers. Among the findings:

■ Nearly one-third of respondents said they had been “more attracted to someone” because they had a pet.

■ More than half said they would find someone more attractive if they knew he or she had adopted a pet.

■ Most respondents said they thought their date’s choice in pets said a lot about their personality.

■ More than half said they would not date someone who did not like pets.

Women tended to have stronger opinions on many of these matters than men, the Match.com survey also found.

“Women are generally more discerning than men about their mate choices,” said Peter B. Gray, an anthropologist who was the lead author of the survey report. “They want to know if this person is a good fit, and this may be one way to assess whether someone is telling the truth and is the right fit in a large, anonymous society.”

Another interesting finding from the Match.com survey was that roughly two-thirds of respondents over all said they would judge their date based on how he or she responded to their own pet. “That people might let a cat or a dog influence the most important close relationship in their life — that’s phenomenal,” said Justin Garcia, an associate professor of gender studies at the Kinsey Institute, who is also a scientific adviser to Match.com and a co-author on the paper.

But as more young adults postpone marriage and children and remain single for longer, he said, they may view their pets as one of the more stable and long-lasting aspects of their life.

Whether dog owners truly are more empathetic and nurturing than those who don’t own pets is harder to ascertain. In a series of studies, two Canadian researchers, Anika Cloutier and Johanna Peetz, showed that pet owners certainly believed their pets had a positive effect on their romantic relationships. They also found a correlation between pet ownership and higher relationship satisfaction.

Ms. Cloutier acknowledged that it’s hard to know what comes first, the dog or the personality traits that make someone likely to commit to a relationship, and that the links could reflect reverse causality. “It could be that couples who are more committed and already feel very positively about their relationship are those that decide to invest in the relationship to the pet,” she said.

And beware the cynics who might misuse this information. Frat houses have for years used the trick of adopting baby animals, from puppies to baby chicks to kid goats, to draw visitors. Men or women could similarly “borrow” a friend’s dog for an afternoon walk to lure potential mates.

But ultimately, Dr. Fisher comes down on the side of pet owners, who must devote a lot of time to their animals. In a world full of messages, not all of them necessarily honest, she said, dog ownership is generally “a real honest message.”

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Contributing Op-Ed Writer: The Pain of Loving Old Dogs

My husband would have found it impossible to believe that 30 years later he would be running around the house in his boxers, trying to tackle an ancient 70-pound mutt in the dark and shove a pill down his throat.

Clark is also deaf, and he suffers from crippling arthritis. So far we have been able to manage his pain with medication, but at his checkup last year, when he turned 13, the vet had some sobering news. “With big dogs, there’s often a huge difference between 12 and 13,” he said. “One day Clark won’t be able to get up, and when that happens it’ll be time to let him go.”

The very idea is unthinkable. Clark has been our family protector, making political canvassers and religious zealots think twice about knocking on our door. He was the dog of our sons’ childhood, the pillow they sprawled on during Saturday-morning cartoons, the security blanket they returned to after an impossible test or a classroom bully or, later, a broken heart.

At 14, this big dog has now surpassed his life expectancy, but he is not the oldest dog in our house. We are also the custodians of my late mother’s ancient miniature dachshund, Emma, who is seven months older. She obliterated any thought of vet-bill caps in her first three months under our care. Emma has survived countless trips to the emergency clinic because she is the most accomplished food thief her canny breed has ever produced. She dragged an entire pound of dark chocolate bonbons under the guest bed and ate them before anyone noticed a lone fluted paper wrapper in the middle of the floor and wondered where it had come from. Rummaging through visitors’ purses, she has consumed whole packages of gum, pouches of dusty Tums and, once, a zip-lock bag full of prescription medicine.

There’s no room here to tell the whole story of the time Emma ate a tray of rat poison at a rented fishing cabin on Kentucky Lake, but it involves a manic drive down a twisting highway as the whole family peered through the trees for a sign of any kind of store that might sell hydrogen peroxide. You don’t know the real value of the human community if you’ve never poured hydrogen peroxide down an eight-pound dog’s throat in the parking lot of a Family Dollar store with half a dozen rural Kentuckians offering advice. Let me tell you, country people know what to do when a dog eats rat poison.

That bottle of hydrogen peroxide cost 78 cents, but the three months of professional treatment that followed made a trip to the emergency vet look like a trip to the dollar store.

Other people make health care choices for their pets that we could not afford for Clark and Emma, but we will always give them anything that’s within our power to give. Clark, our children’s canine sibling, and Emma, who gave my grieving mother a reason to get out of bed every morning after my father died — these dogs are our family.

Clark is now under the care of a young hospice vet. On his first visit — a terrible day two weeks ago when suddenly Clark could no longer stand up — the vet worked a miracle. Now on a new combination of medications, Clark is wagging his tail again and begging to be taken on walks. But time is still time, and always unfolding. On the hospice vet’s next visit, he will most likely be coming to help us say goodbye.

Clark understands that he is old and weak and vulnerable, and it’s hard now to leave him alone with his fears. I watch sometimes from the next room when my husband leaves the house and Clark thinks he has been abandoned. Standing next to the door, he folds himself up, lowering his hind quarters gradually, bit by bit, until his aching haunches touch the floor. He slides his front feet forward, slowly, slowly, and he is down.

A moan begins in the back of his throat, lower pitched than a whine, higher than a groan, and grows. His head tips back. His eyes close. The moan escapes in a rush of vowels, louder and louder and louder, and now he is howling. It’s the sound he made in his youth whenever he heard a siren passing on the big road at the edge of the neighborhood, but he can’t hear that far any more.

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Q&A: ‘Wilma’s World,’ a New Book by Rae Dunn

I was looking though the pen of brown ones, and they were very rambunctious. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw in the next pen this black, smooth-coat dog just sitting there observing everything. She was very pensive and docile, and we just connected.

How did the photos begin?

When I took her home, she was smaller than a Beanie Baby. She was teeny. So of course I took a picture of her. She would sit there and look at the camera, very still, and just pose. So I started accumulating thousands of pictures of her, because she was so easy to photograph.

What did you see in the photos that suggested a book?

I never intended to do a book of Wilma. I started a blog for her, just because I had so many pictures. However, I had always wanted to write and illustrate a children’s book.

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The cover of Wilma’s book. “Wilma teaches me to see the world in a very simple, childlike way,” Ms. Dunn said.

I started looking at the pictures of Wilma on my computer, because there are a million of them, and I thought maybe I could use photographs instead of illustrations. I printed out my favorite ones and was trying to make a story out of them. But the more I looked at them, the more I realized that each picture had its own message.

So it began as a book for children?

I thought it would be perfect for kids, because it would be life lessons from a dog. I made a mock-up and presented it to Chronicle Books. They liked it immediately but said: “This is not a children’s book. It’s a grown-up book.” Now I realize children already do all these things in the book. It’s grown-ups who need to be reminded to act more like children.

Why do you say that?

The world is so complicated these days, and there’s so much information coming at us, that it’s sensory overload. Wilma teaches me to see the world in a very simple, childlike way, and to home in on the details. People miss so much beauty in the world because they’re not observing. They’re just busy going from place to place, walking down the street and looking at their cellphones.

Are the photos a mix of candid and posed shots?

Ninety percent of the pictures were taken because I always have a camera, we’re always together and we just stumble upon things. We go to Vermont every summer, so there are a lot of shots from there — like there’s a tractor we found, and I just put her on it.

A few of them, where I wanted a message, I intentionally set it up. There’s one where she’s painting on the beach, and I posed her for that. There are also a few of her with costumes on. I would never buy a costume for her, but I have a friend in Hong Kong who sends me dog clothes because she thinks they’re funny, and I always take a picture.

Has Wilma influenced your ceramics?

Definitely, but it’s hard to explain. I’ve always been very simple and minimal, and Wilma is like that, too. I did a series of Wilma work that had big polka dots, because she has these amazing organic polka dots on her back. She’s my muse. She seems enlightened, and has definitely changed my life. A lot of people say that a dog takes on the personality of its owner; but with me, I want to take on her personality.

Is that why she’s listed as the book’s author?

She basically wrote the book. It’s what Wilma and I experience as we go through the world together. There’s one shot in there of her with a pair of eyeglasses that I found on the street, and it says, “Take a closer look.” That’s the main message. There’s so much beauty and inspiration if you just look and notice the small things in life.

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Well: Exercising a Fat Dog (and Yourself)

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Credit Illustration by Ben Wiseman

From the Well archives.

The chubby, inert pet dog has become a familiar household sight in richer countries. And yet there lies a possible boon to the out-of-shape among us. A recent study suggests that being told one’s pet is dangerously overweight might provide the impetus that gets an owner moving.

It might seem that having a pet dog would result in considerable physical activity, and that’s true, broadly speaking. A 2013 review of studies related to dog ownership concluded that as a group, dog owners spend almost an hour more per week walking than people without dogs. Even so, a survey from 2008 conducted in Australia found that nearly a quarter of all dog owners reported never walking their pets. This population of dog owners, studies show, actually engage in less physical activity each week than people without a dog.

A majority of dog owners, of course, are deeply attached to their pets, whether they walk them or not. That bond prompted a group of scientists, veterinarians and physicians at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, in Bethesda, Md., and other institutions to consider whether people might be willing to undertake a health-and-fitness regimen targeted at their dog, even if they had little enthusiasm for such a program for themselves.

The researchers recruited 32 dog owners who visited a veterinary clinic in Maryland. Their dogs varied widely in age, breed and size, but all were overweight or obese and, by and large, sedentary. So, too, were most of their owners (although the only criterion for their participation was that their dogs be rotund). Half the volunteers were told by a veterinarian to watch their dog’s nutrition and monitor its health. The rest were told that their dog was overweight and needed more exercise. These owners were given specific exercise prescriptions, which generally advised walking the dog for at least 30 minutes every day.

Three months later, the volunteers and their dogs were re-evaluated. Both owners and pets in the dog-walking group had lost weight. But more interesting, those who had been told only that their pets were worryingly heavy also began exercising their pets and themselves. They reported walking far more often than they did before they got health warnings for their dogs, and both they and their pets were thinner.

The upshot, says Capt. Mark B. Stephens M.D., a professor of family medicine at Uniformed Services University and a co-author of the study — it was published in September in the journal Anthrozoös — is that “love and concern for a dog can be a powerful motivation for exercise.” Which is not to say, he adds, that people should adopt a dog as a kind of fitness device. Unlike a treadmill, Marley cannot be abandoned in the basement when you tire of working out. On the other hand, no device will ever be so happy to see you lace up your walking shoes.

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