By Dr. Becker
There are many reasons why people walk their dogs, some practical — such as giving their pet a chance to relieve himself and exercise — and some more self-serving, such as increasing their own physical activity or social lives. In a study of 26 dog owners, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, however, the No. 1 reason why participants said they were motivated to walk their dogs was because it made them happy.
A close second was because they believed it made their dog happy, too, and, in fact, owners positive feelings about dog walking were “contingent” on their dogs enjoying it also.1
In short, pet owners were motivated to walk their dogs because of their dogs’ needs, yet they also derived pleasure from the walk. The researchers described it as a “complex inter-relationship between the dog’s and the owner’s needs,” and you’ve likely experienced this interconnectedness in your own relationship with your dog. They continued:2
“Participants identified needs of their dog that they aimed to fulfil through walking their dog. They also reported positive outcomes that they believed the dog gained through being walked.
However, the owners’ needs were threaded through the dog’s needs; such that meeting the dog’s needs produced positive outcomes for the dog owner, the primary focus of discussion. The interplay of beliefs and perceptions is dynamic and is constantly adjusted and renegotiated as circumstances and needs change.”
The Many Reasons to Walk Your Dog
The physical benefits of getting out and walking together with your dog cannot be overstated, however the benefits of dog walking extend beyond increased exercise. In fact, dog walking is associated with a lower risk of diabetes, hypertension and depression even after accounting for levels of moderate to high physical activity.3 There are many different types of walks you can enjoy with your dog, even if you’re short on time.
Indeed, participants in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study reported relaxation and stress-relieving benefits, even above those gained from a regular, nondog walk. Other noted benefits included:
• Routine: Having a dog can increase your own self-discipline and motivate you to get up early and stick to a routine when it comes to fitting in a daily walk together. Some people had strict routines, walking the same route at the same time each day while others changed it up a bit, but still walked at the same general time each day, such as before or after work.
“Dogs were described as ‘knowing the time’ and becoming excited in anticipation of going for a walk, thus perhaps self-discipline here is better described as co-discipline,” the researchers stated.4
• Vicarious pleasure: Some owners said they derived pleasure on the walk from the pleasure the observed their dog experiencing.
• Exercise that “doesn’t feel like exercise:” Because dog walking was often viewed as a time to “chill out” and relieve stress, some owners mentioned dog walking as a way to fit in exercise that they didn’t dread doing. Along with reporting increased physical activity, some dog walkers said they experienced weight loss and improved management of health conditions.
• Increased connectedness: When out walking with their dogs, many owners said they felt a connection with nature, other people, their surroundings and their dog, with the latter leading to more dog walking. “One participant described the relationship with his dog through walking as ‘symbiotic,’” the researchers wrote, “[stating] … ‘one thing lives off another and it gets better.’”5
Reasons Why People Don’t Walk Their Dogs
While the majority of dog owners have good intentions of walking their dog daily, nearly half fail to follow through.6 A frequently cited reason why owners did not walk their dogs was health — typically injury or long-term illness. However, the most commonly reported hindrance to dog walking was a lack of time.7
Some people noted caring for young children as well as older children’s school and activities as reasons why dog walking was a challenge. Others blamed their dogs, stating they were “lazy” or didn’t like to go out in the rain or cold. However, others believed there was no excuse for not walking your dog.
Addressing the “intention-behavior gap” that many people experience when it comes to walking their dog could increase levels of walking. To do so, the researchers writing in BMC Public Health suggested:8
- Finding more enjoyable places to walk
- Setting a concrete plan to walk
- Making walking your dog a habit by setting routines and cues
- Making affirmations of commitment
Carri Westgarth, Ph.D., a research fellow at the University of Liverpool and the lead author of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study also suggested leaving your cellphone behind to thoroughly enjoy the walk and the time with your dog:
“Dog walking can be really important for our mental health, and there is no joy like seeing your dog having a good time. In this age of information and work overload, let’s thank our dogs for — in the main — being such a positive influence on our well-being … leave the mobile and worries at home and try to focus on observing our dog and appreciating our surroundings.”9
You Can Get the Benefits of Dog Walking Even If You Don’t Have a Pet
If the idea of going for a romp down a trail with an enthusiastic four-legged pal appeals to you, but you’re not up for being a full-time owner, there are many ways to get your dog-walking fix — to the benefit of both you and the lucky pooch.
Many animal shelters depend on volunteers to give the dogs a reprieve from their kennels, or you may have a neighbor who would love your offer to take their dog on a walk while they’re at work. Just be aware that you may find it so rewarding, you decide to adopt a dog of your own to go on walks together.