We all know that dogs are responsible for pretty much everything good in the world. Now, we have yet another near-miracle to thank them for.

Loneliness is a serious epidemic: there are 9 million lonely people in the UK - and more than 4 million of them are 65 years-old and over. On top of the psychologically suffering it piles on people - it is a condition linked with a range of psychological problems from alcoholism to drug abuse, eating disorder to depression - loneliness has been found to be as much of a risk factor for early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

This is where the pups come in. Pets help older adults remain more physically and socially active, according to research from the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition. More specifically, it revealed that dogs reduce levels of loneliness and improve mental functioning in older adults when they have contact with dogs, and that pet ownership is associated with lower levels of depression following spousal bereavement.

On the back of this study, Dog Dates was launched 'in the UK’s most pet-friendly town', Melton Mowbury. The first-of-its-kind initiative paired lonely elderly residents with local dog owners. The intention? That each pairing would form a companionship, tangibly reducing the social isolation so many elderly people experience.

Take Jenny, who is featured in the video above. After separating from her abusive husband, she lost trust in people and began to suffer from social isolation. Some days, she sees no one. “I don’t think you can really escape loneliness,” she said. “But you can do a lot to help it." Now, after being matched with a local family who own a dog, she has the opportunity to socialise with not only the family, but other dog walkers and members of the community as she takes the family’s dog for a walk.

Mars Petcare is now launching PEDIGEE Dog Dates nationally to help alleviate the loneliness experienced by 9 million people across the UK. Chris Rodi of Mars Petcare UK said his company are using its voice to “raise awareness of the role pets can play in tackling loneliness and ultimately drive change in the UK, which is important to us”. He told indy100 that “a huge triumph for us is just knowing we’ve made a difference”, adding:

Seeing the smiles and joy on the faces of participants at the pilot launch was just incredible and it’s even better hearing about the relationships that have been forged from that first meeting. I know of local dog owners and elderly participants connecting over email and sharing pictures that were taken on the day, all the way through to pairings who have continued their outdoor meets for regular Dog Dates in their local area and continued companionship.

And we have the power to make a difference, he made clear, adding:

It’s all about bringing communities together to combat the issue at a local, grassroots level.

There aren’t any hoops to jump through to participate, it’s as simple as inviting a local member of your community on a walk with your dog.

Laura Alcock-Ferguson, executive director of the Campaign to End Loneliness, agrees that everyone can help:

Small moments of connection, like saying hello to someone in your local shop or smiling at someone on the bus, can be really valuable to someone who is lonely. If you know someone who you think might be lonely, give them a phone call. Just 10 minutes makes a big difference.

The Be More Us movement is dedicated to elevating and celebrate these small moments of connection. Small moments count and we can all participate in them.

If you’re feeling lonely, Laura explains that there are ways to feel better:

Remember that millions of people experience loneliness. It’s not a failing and there are lots of things you can do to tackle it. Firstly, think about yourself. What you would like more of? Time with friends or family? Invite them to visit. Secondly, share your skills and time with others; volunteering is a fantastic way to make new friends. Join a community event; Nextdoor is a great way to find out what is happening in your local area. If you have a passion for something – swimming, walking, reading – join a local club to meet likeminded people.

Dog-lover and Batley and Spen MP Tracy Brabin agrees that dogs can be a fantastic antidote to loneliness:

Animals have a unique ability to improve the wellbeing of older people and society as a whole, something that as a dog-owner I have first-hand experience of. The friendship and opportunities for social interaction a dog can bring should not be underestimated – I rarely take my beloved Rocky for a walk without being stopped for a chat by other dog lovers.

If you’re interested in Dog Dates coming to your local community, you can register your interest here.

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