Background: Physical inactivity and sedentary behaviour are major threats to population health. A considerable proportion of people own dogs, and there is good evidence that dog ownership is associated with higher levels of physical activity. However not all owners walk their dogs regularly. This paper comprehensively reviews the evidence for correlates of dog walking so that effective interventions may be designed to increase the physical activity of dog owners.
Methods: Published findings from 1990-2012 in both the human and veterinary literature were collated and reviewed for evidence of factors associated with objective and self-reported measures of dog walking behaviour, or reported perceptions about dog walking. Study designs included cross-sectional observational, trials and qualitative interviews.
Results: There is good evidence that the strength of the dog-owner relationship, through a sense of obligation to walk the dog, and the perceived support and motivation a dog provides for walking, is strongly associated with increased walking. The perceived exercise requirements of the dog may also be a modifiable point for intervention. In addition, access to suitable walking areas with dog supportive features that fulfill dog needs such as off-leash exercise, and that also encourage human social interaction, may be incentivising.
Conclusion: Current evidence suggests that dog walking may be most effectively encouraged through targeting the dog-owner relationship and by providing dog-supportive physical environments. More research is required to investigate the influence of individual owner and dog factors on 'intention' to walk the dog as well as the influence of human social interaction whilst walking a dog. The effects of policy and cultural practices relating to dog ownership and walking should also be investigated. Future studies must be of a higher quality methodological design, including accounting for the effects of confounding between variables, and longitudinal designs and testing of interventions in a controlled design in order to infer causality.
Alex’s Notes: It’s about time someone looked into the benefits of man’s best friend! Well, okay previous studies have been conducted. A previous meta-analysis found that dog owners who actually walk their dogs did so for an average of 160 minutes per week and an average frequency of four times per week. Children also appear to be more active when they have a dog to play with. Considering that the recommended physical activity guidelines are 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week, simply walking the dog at a brisk pace for 30 minutes five times per week would satisfy the guideline. It would help the dog too, seeing how the exercise levels of dogs correlate with the owner’s activity levels and canine obesity is a growing problem.
The above extends beyond physical health. The dog-owner relationship is a great buffer against stress and at least one study has shown that walking a dog has greater health benefits as a buffer against stress in senior citizens than walking without a dog. Moreover, merely petting the dog was shown to raise parasympathetic neural activity. So what can we conclude so far? Going for a brisk walk with the dog after dinner is a great way to get in some movement and relax!
Now for the bad news; the meta-analysis mentioned earlier also found that only 60% of dog owners walk their dogs, and only about 36% of households in the U.S. own a dog (the rest own cats and birds, which you can’t walk… easily, and a small percentage own horses). Thus, only about 22% of U.S. households walk their dogs. So how can we promote greater dog-walking? That is the focus of the review at hand, which identified 31 studies dating back to 1990 on the correlates of dog ownership, walking, and physical activity for systematic review.
The dog’s weight status and gender didn’t have an impact, which is sad because you would think that an obese dog would make someone feel at least a little guilty. Then again, the owners were likely overweight also seeing how dog exercise habits correlate with the owner’s. Age was a good factor though with younger dogs being walked more frequently and for longer periods. Additionally, the perceived amount of exercise a dog needed was a strong predictor of dog walking. Surprisingly, dog behavior was not, and in fact, dog walking was seen as a solution to curb destructive behaviors and barking.
Not surprisingly, the dog-owner relationship appeared to be the most important correlate of dog walking. This includes things such as attachment, interaction frequency, feelings of support and motivation provided by the dog (i.e. nudging your leg with lease in mouth), and feelings of obligation towards walking the dog. Notably, “knowing that the dog enjoys going for a walk” does not appear to be associated with dog walking when support/motivation provided by the dog is already accounted for. Along these lines, feeling that the dog pressures them to go for a walk and invoking feelings of guilt encourage walking but gain their strength from that of the dog-owner relationship.
There was mixed evidence for an association between dog walking and the owners’ gender, age, and education. However, greater income did promote dog walking, while there was no association with employment status (rich retired folks perhaps?). Obesity was obviously negatively correlated with dog walking. In terms of beliefs, intention to exercise the dog predicts dog walking behavior and some evidence suggests that this intention is itself influenced by various factors such as valuation of exercise, lack of time, dislike of exercise/affective attitude, instrumental attitude, subjective norm, and how in control of the behavior of dog walking owners feel (perceived behavioral control). Of course lack of time was a significant perceived barrier.
Amusingly, people don’t care if walking the dog promotes social interaction. However, they do care about what their significant other thinks about dog walking, and also care about feeling safe (although walking the dog vs going alone does promote feelings of safety). Concerns about dogs coming into contact with children or other park users and the potential for problems has been identified as a barrier to dog walking, and crowded environments can discourage some dog walkers as they feel it interferes with walking their dog unleashed (or they may put their dog on a leash and go home earlier than planned).
The most important factors in terms of the environment are accessible public open spaces for dogs and the provision of dog-related infrastructure within these walking areas. People want to be able to walk their dog off-leash and have an environment that encourages dog-walking. There is also some evidence that the aesthetics of the environment play a role. Interestingly, very little research looked into the impact of weather, although hot weather was identified as a barrier (and I would bet that freezing cold or rain storms are a barrier as well).
So how can I get myself to walk the dog?
First off, get a young dog that is able to easily foster a relationship with its owner and is naturally an active breed. Make sure you yourself are fit, enjoy exercise, and have financial stability. And also time. Find an aesthetically pleasing open space that allows for freedom of movement without concern for others’ safety, and learn to control the weather.