With a puppy to love, author no longer needed food to fill the hole in her heart

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Greenville News, Greenville, SC

By Donna Isbell Walker • STAFF WRITER • June 3, 2008

Like many women, Patti Lawson turned to food for comfort during a long, bleak winter and a painful romantic breakup five years ago.

She felt “pudgy and pitiful,” lacking the motivation to do more than think fleetingly about getting into shape for spring before reaching for another candy bar.

But a chance visit to a pet store one dull Saturday night netted her an unlikely personal trainer, best friend and, ultimately, muse — a mixed-breed dog with floppy ears and wise brown eyes.

Lawson, a South Carolina native and an attorney in West Virginia, has written a book about the life-changing friendship with the cocker spaniel-German shepherd puppy she named Sadie. “The Dog Diet,” subtitled “What My Dog Taught Me About Shedding Pounds, Licking Stress and Getting a New Leash on Life,” tells the story of how Lawson managed to get fit and happy just by making room in her heart and home for a pound puppy.
In the book, Lawson reluctantly takes home the puppy for a night, then returns it the next day after being kept awake half the night by barking and the dog’s many trips outdoors to tend to bathroom business. But she soon realizes she misses the dog and returns to the pet store to claim the puppy for keeps.

For the first week, Sadie keeps Lawson so busy she doesn’t have time to overeat, and when she tries to sneak ice cream into the bed one night, the dog leaps onto Lawson. The bowl overturns, the bed sheets are covered in chocolate goo, and Lawson decides it’s just not worth it.

When she finally takes a moment to step onto one of her three precisely calibrated bathroom scales, Lawson finds she has lost eight pounds, without even trying.

The next day at work, her secretary asks what she’s doing to lose the weight, and Lawson replies, “I’m on the dog diet,” the author recalled in a recent phone interview.

Eventually, Lawson lost 30 pounds, although she said she has since regained a few. But the changes in eating habits and lifestyle, as well as attitude, have become permanent.

She found that whenever she ate something that smelled good, Sadie wanted to share. If Lawson opened a package or a can and Sadie could hear it, she wanted to share that as well. So Lawson developed a regimen of healthy foods that she likes and Sadie doesn’t, and she shares recipes and cooking tips in the book.

“From Sadie I learned that food can’t be your comfort, and it can’t be the thing that keeps you going,” Lawson said. “And I got active, that was the main thing. I got really active.”

The activity, which Lawson dubbed “dogercise,” included walking Sadie for the necessary bathroom trips, but also just playing and goofing around with the energetic dog. Lawson came up with some moves that work for strength and resistance training as well, such as “leash triceps” and “dog leg lifts,” in which she drapes Sadie over her calves and lifts her a few inches off the floor.

The furry little dog also helped Lawson to retool her way of looking at life.

“Dogs have such a spirit about them. They accept you, and they’re happy about everything. … Sadie would watch me when I woke up in the morning, and her tail would wag. I mean, how can you be in a bad mood?” Lawson said.

While Sadie’s presence gave Lawson the inspiration to make healthy changes, it isn’t necessary to have a dog to make the “Dog Diet” principles work, Lawson said.

“Set a goal, and not an unrealistic one,” she said. “Make exercise something you enjoy, not something you hate. I don’t know anyone who likes running on a treadmill; it’s not fun. … If you don’t have a dog, make an appointment to walk yourself. Everybody can get up a half hour early, and I think it makes the work day seem like that’s not your whole part of your day.”

On the diet side of things, it’s important to learn how to like healthy foods, Lawson said, and that can sometimes be accomplished by finding interesting spices or new ways of cooking.

“And learn when to stop. I have learned to quit eating when I’m not hungry anymore, and to eat when I’m hungry. … And keep healthy stuff around. If you don’t have it in the house, you’re not gonna eat it.”

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