We know that most people do not get the 150 minutes of exercise per week that is recommended. Could encouraging people to walk their dogs more often help, and if so, how best to go about it? A paper by Carri Westgarth of the University of Liverpool and others reviews the state of current research.
Although to some dog owners a daily walk is an essential part of the routine, there are also people who never walk their dog. For example, a 2008 study in Australia found that, on average, people walk their dog four times a week for a total of 134 minutes, and that 23 percent of dog owners never walk their dog.
Encouraging more people to take their dog for a regular walk would be good for both the dog and owner.
The research found that as well as dog-related and owner-related variables, aspects of the physical and social environment also influence dog walking behavior.
"Dog walking may be most effectively encouraged through: 1) targeting the dog-owner relationship to increase the sense of obligation to walk the dog as well as the emotional support the dog can provide."
The dog’s size, age, and breed are related to dog walking, and it seems that dogs that are regularly walked have fewer behavioral problems. This could be due to ongoing training and socializing during the walks, and/or it could be that dogs with behavior problems are taken for walks less often because their owners simply find it too difficult. Dogs that pull on the leash, bark, behave badly, or are fearful or aggressive are walked less often. Helping owners resolve these issues might enable them to take more walks.
As you might expect, the dog-owner relationship is an important part of their model. People who feel a strong emotional attachment to their canine companion, and who feel that the dog provides them with motivation and social support to walk, are more likely to walk their dog regularly. (Here in my household, the happy anticipation on the dogs' faces when it is time for walkies definitely provides motivation).
The social environment can encourage or discourage dog walking. Among the influences are feelings of safety in the neighborhood, fear of loose dogs, and unhappiness with other dog owners not picking up after their dogs.
The authors suggest a number of aspects of the physical environment that encourage dog walking. “Accessible public open space for dogs and the provision of dog-related infrastructure within walking areas are also important to dog owners (e.g. clear signage, dog litter bags and bins, accessible water sources, fencing around designated off-leash areas, separation from children’s play areas, dog agility equipment, parks not being located near to busy roads and being well-fenced),” they write.
In terms of encouraging more dog walking, the researchers suggest two main approaches. "The evidence currently suggests that dog walking may be most effectively encouraged through: 1) targeting the dog-owner relationship to increase the sense of obligation to walk the dog as well as the emotional support the dog can provide to the owner," they write, "and 2) by the provision of dog-supportive physical environments."
Of course, these health-promotion activities would only target people who have a dog, but this is a sizable proportion of the population. And one advantage to regular dog walking is that people tend to go out in all weathers.
Cultural differences will also need to be taken into account. For example, in the United States and Canada, some people take their dogs to a dog park, a typically fenced area where dogs can run around while their owners tend to stand still and watch. In contrast, these generally do not exist in the United Kingdom where dogs are allowed off-leash in many more areas.
The paper is what is known as a meta-analysis, in which the existing research literature is scoured for relevant studies. One problem the paper identifies is that many studies are small-scale and there is little standardization. Differences in study design make it hard to generalize findings. Future research that uses standardized measures with a strong experimental design will be particularly welcome.
There’s a nice touch at the end of the article. Most journals require authors to state if they have any competing interests that might influence their work. In this case, they state, “All authors own a dog(s).”
This is a thorough analysis of the literature on dog walking and touches on more variables than there is space to cover here. The full paper is available (open access) here.