Eric O'Grey was once unhealthy, depressed and lonely. Less than a decade ago, when he was 50, his doctor told him to buy a funeral plot because he'd soon need one. He weighed 350 pounds, with cholesterol at "a walking dead level."
That was in 2010; fast forward to 2019, and O'Grey, now 60, is alive and well because of a shelter dog named Peety.
"Everything commercially marketed about weight loss, I had tried and failed on," said O'Grey, who had become a shut-in. Desperate, he found a nutrition expert who put him on a ration diet and also prescribed a shelter dog, which O'Grey thought was "crazy." The intention was to get him outside and moving.
"I think I have the perfect dog for you," O'Grey recalled the woman in charge of adoptions saying at the Silicon Valley shelter he visited. "She walked in with this really large and unhealthy-looking dog," he said. Peety was an older dog with skin problems who had trouble walking because of his weight.
The shelter worker told O'Grey that he and the dog were in the same physical shape and that O'Grey needed to partner with the dog to make both of their lives healthier and happier. He took Peety home, and for three days, they avoided each other.
"I didn't really want to look after this dog," O'Grey said.
On the third night, Peety left his dog bed down the hall and leaped into bed with O'Grey. "That was the turning point," he said. He'd never experienced bonding with an animal. They looked into each other's eyes. "There was this deep, unconditional love that was more powerful than anything I'd ever felt before," he said. "We became best friends and truly bonded creatures in that moment. It changed everything for me."
A partial explanation for why people are so enamored with dogs has to do with their facial expressions. A 2017 study published in Nature reported that dogs use a variety of expressions to communicate with humans. They're trying to tell you something, and it brings us closer. That closeness can be the catalyst that changes a person's health, and life.
Peety and O'Grey became accountability partners. O'Grey stuck to his new diet and walked Peety every day. In 10 months, O'Grey lost 150 pounds and was able to stop taking his medications. Peety lost 25 pounds and became a spry dog.
O'Grey took up running and qualified for the 2013 Boston Marathon.
Peety died in 2015. After his death, O'Grey visited the Seattle Humane Society, where he found Jake and "instantly bonded," he said. Jake would become his new partner in health.
Samantha Albert, 29, was told by her physician that she was prediabetic in 2017. Albert said she also suffered from depression and was prone to sitting on the couch eating comfort food. The doctor prescribed anti-depressants, but also asked if she was interested in getting a dog as part of the solution.
Around the same time the doctor recommended a dog, a college friend had reached out to Albert. "She had rescued this skin-and-bones dog off the street and nursed him back to health." Her friend already had four dogs and asked if Albert could take him.
She adopted Ghost, "50 pounds of bouncy lab/husky/whatever mutt that decided he was mine the second I arrived at my friend's house to see him," she said. In the five years she had been living in Memphis, Albert said she had been to the park only a few times. "Ghost is my motivation to be healthy," she said.
Albert began eating healthier and taking Ghost to the park. She also took up jiujitsu, and has lost 30 pounds. "On days when the Prozac isn't quite strong enough, the dog is there to cuddle," Albert said. "He gets me out of the house every day."
Dan Landers, 35, was a fourth-generation electrician, but at age 23, he was crushed by a freight elevator, ending his career. In the six years that followed, "I went through endless MRIs, procedures, shots, surgeries and physical therapy to try to make me better, and nothing was working," Landers said. "I was dejected and resigned."
Now using a cane to walk, Landers attended Northeastern University to become an engineer. Upon graduation, his sister, who worked at a shelter, told him of an 8-week-old puppy that was found abandoned and living on the streets. She had nursed the puppy back to health and sent pictures of it to her brother. "I fell in love," Landers said.
"I had this super happy puppy on my hands," said Landers, who named the dog River. "Being sedentary was not an option. ... I started pushing through the pain because suddenly I had a motivation that was bigger than just me."
He began with short walks, then they got longer and longer. He'd been using a cane for six years, but "after only three months of concentrating on my dog, I started to walk without the cane. What a liberating feeling," Landers said. He credits his recovery and overall life satisfaction to River.
"I feel like I owe my life to this dog," he said.