By Dr. Becker
Dogs benefit greatly from regular walking, both in terms of the physical activity and the mental stimulation of getting to experience new sights and sounds. Dog owners also benefit from the increased activity and social connections gained by being out and about in their communities. But despite the far-reaching advantages, not all dog owners walk their dogs. Statistics vary widely on just how many dog owners walk their dogs regularly, but it ranges anywhere from a high of 70 percent1 to a low of 40 percent.2
That means anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of dog owners do not walk their dogs on a regular basis. Why not is a mystery, one that a study published in the journal BMC Public Health set out to answer.3 It turns out that both "dog and owner factors" are associated with a dog owner's sense of encouragement and motivation to walk the dog, a term researchers dubbed "the Lassie effect."
What Motivates People to Walk Their Dogs?
More than 600 dog owners living in Australia took part in the study, which looked into two outcomes: how often their dog encouraged them to go walking in the last month and how having a dog makes them walk more. Several factors were positively associated with both outcomes, including:4
- Owning a larger dog
- Having an increased level of attachment to the dog
- Knowing the dog enjoys going for a walk
- Believing walking keeps the dog healthy
- Having high social support from family to walking
On the other hand, having children at home or having a child as the main dog walker were negatively associated with encouragement and motivation for dog walking. Participants also reported a belief that walking reduces barking, which was positively associated with motivation to walk, while owning a dog that is overweight, old or sick had a negative association with that outcome.
In short, small dogs weighing 30 pounds or less were walked much less often than larger dogs, and older and overweight dogs were rarely taken on walks. As The New York Times reported, "[E]ven large, healthy dogs were unlikely to be walked if the owners did not believe that walking dogs was healthful or that their dog liked to walk. Dogs were also less likely to be walked if there were few parks nearby."5 People who reported a strong bond with their dog were also more likely to walk him regularly than those who did not.
A separate study also highlighted that the strength of the dog-owner bond may be associated with dog-walking frequency, and although owners often said they did so "for the dog," they also benefited significantly. Most often, the owners reported feelings of happiness upon walking their dog, but only if their dog also enjoyed it.6
Dog Owners Walk an Average of 22 Minutes More Daily
Although not all dog owners walk their dogs, those that do enjoy a significant amount of extra physical activity on a daily basis — enough to potentially improve their health. Dog owners spent an additional 22 minutes walking daily, as well as added 2,760 additional steps to their day and had significantly fewer continuous periods of sitting than non-owners.7 This extra activity may help explain some of the physical benefits of pet ownership, such as a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.8
Unlike dog walking, visits to a dog park, while increasing your dog's physical activity, are not likely to count much in terms of your own exercise goals. When researchers observed dog park visitors, they found the owners were less likely to be engaged in walking or vigorous activity compared to people in other areas of the park,9 likely because the dog owners simply stood around watching their dogs play.
Most Dog Owners Intend to Walk Their Dogs, but Most Fail to Follow Through
Another revealing study found that while the majority of dog owners have good intentions of walking their dog daily, nearly half fail to follow through.10 Addressing this "intention-behavior gap" could increase levels of walking. To do so, the researchers suggested:
- 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
Writing in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, researchers in a separate study also found ways to target increased dog walking, noting:11
"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 fulfil dog needs such as off-leash exercise, and that also encourage human social interaction, may be incentivizing."
Walking Your Dog Offers Benefits Beyond Exercise
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.12
Indeed, participants in an International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study reported relaxation and stress-relieving benefits, even above those gained from a regular, non-dog walk.
One owner reported, "It's not just about the physical activity they give you, it's the mental benefits. My friend who doesn't have her own dog comes walking with us and says that it's impossible to leave depressed after watching the dogs running around enjoying themselves."13 As such, the researchers concluded, "Dog walking is used to meet the emotional needs of the owner as well as the physical needs of the dog."14
One final mention — it's about your dog's emotional needs, too, so when you're out walking let your canine companion take the lead and set the pace, at least some of the time, so he can be a dog and sniff and mark to his heart's content.