In my view, one of the many benefits of living with dogs are the walks. All four of my dogs love to hike and run and we spend time together almost every morning at our local forest preserve. The dogs enjoy the exercise and have opportunities to explore, sniff and play, while Mike and I exercise, enjoy the outdoors and spend quality time with our family.
Seriously, what’s not to like?
Dog walks can also be social events. A friend and I meet regularly at different parks to go hiking with our dogs. We enjoy exploring new trails and rotate favorite parks so that the dogs get to experience and enjoy a variety of outdoor areas. Group walks are also a regular part of my training school’s open floor training nights and are great fun for dogs and their people.
For dog folks, it comes as no surprise that this activity is good for us. There is ample evidence that, as a group, dog owners are more physically active than are non-owners and that acquiring a dog often leads to an increase in activity level. Other studies have found that dog owners report physical and psychosocial benefits of walking with their dogs. They get to know other dog walkers in their area, have increased opportunities to meet new people, and develop a sense of community in their neighborhoods. All proven stuff, and not all that noteworthy, since the social and emotional benefits of dog ownership have been known for many years.
However, here is the paradox. Although American dog owners are more likely to engage in regular walking than are non-owners, the actual proportion of dog owners who walk their dogs appears to be quite low. While more than 45 percent of homes in the US have one or more dogs, less than 3 percent of Americans walk their dog for 30 minutes or more per day and between 40 and 60 percent of dog owners do not walk their dogs at all (1).
Why should you care? Well, because walking briskly for 30 minutes daily can achieve the current recommendations for regular physical activity for adults – a level that is seriously under-achieved by many Americans. Knowing this, several public health researchers have recently identified dog walking as a viable approach to improving the physical activity of adults in populations that are notably under-exercising.
And, being researchers, they did what researchers do…….
How much dog walking does it take? Elizabeth Richards and a team of researchers at Purdue University were the first to directly measure the frequency and the intensity of dog walking using activity monitors (think Fit Bit) (2). They outfitted a group of 65 dog owners with accelerometers and collected data over a 7-day period. Owners wore the monitors continuously and recorded the time of day that they started and ended their dog walks. Results: Participants walked their dogs at least one time per day and averaged approximately 30 minutes per walk. During dog walks, almost 80 percent of the exercise was classified as “moderate-vigorous physical activity” (MVPA). About 14 percent of the time was classified as light intensity and 4 percent was sedentary (that must have been the poop stops). The majority of the periods of MVPA occurred in bouts of time that were more than 10 minutes. These distinctions are important because current physical activity guidelines for Americans specify 150 minutes of MVPA per week, achieved in bouts of 10 minutes or more at a time. The authors conclude that: “….dog walking is a type of physical activity that merits greater attention from public health officials and practitioners. Increasing the prevalence of dog walking could help the US attain physical activity objectives….”
Who’s walking (and why)? So, the Purdue study (among others) provides evidence that dog walking can be a great form of exercise (for dog and human). Carri Westgarth and colleagues at the University of Liverpool tackled the next question: What are some of the personal and societal factors that impact an owner’s inclination to walk regularly (or not) with his or her dog? They conducted a systematic review of 31 studies that examined dog ownership and dog walking that had been published over a 22-year period (3). Results: They found that the dedicated dog walkers tend to be owners who possess a strong sense of obligation to their dog’s need for regular exercise and who report that their dog is an important motivator, both for the owner to be active and for spending quality time with their dog. Community factors that are most important include accessibility to public areas that are suitable for walking, that allow off-leash exercise for dogs and that are designed to promote social interactions with other people. Most interesting perhaps is the authors conclusion regarding dog walking areas: “The design of areas intended for dog walking and how they fulfill dog and owner needs may be an important consideration for future interventions. In order to encourage more dog owners to walk their dogs, the recreational areas used for dog walking must be both pleasurable and accessible, as opposed to the common phenomenon of relegating dog access only to the few areas left after other user types have been accommodated.”
From this conclusion, it naturally follows that one may ponder………
What about dog parks? One might ask if the increased number of dog parks in recent years has contributed to dog walking frequency among dog owners. To date only a few studies have examined this relationship. Most recently, Kelly Evenson and several colleagues studied the activity level of dog owners at six different dog parks located in North Carolina, California and Pennsylvania (4). They used a validated measurement tool (The Systematic Observation of Play and Recreation in Communities) to count visitors and monitor activity levels over a one-week period. The researchers also directly interviewed 604 dog park visitors. Results: The primary activity of people who were visiting the dog parks was standing without moving. 79 percent of the recorded activity of dog park visitors was classified as sedentary, 20 percent was walking, and 1 percent was classified as vigorous. The majority of owners (70.4 %) drove their dog to the park, even though many lived less than a mile away. These results were in agreement with two previous studies that collectively examined more than 30 dog parks in multiple states. The authors conclude: “This study……revealed that dog park visitors more often engaged in sedentary behavior or standing without moving than did visitors to other areas of the park……”
Take Away for Dog Folks
For trainers, veterinarians, behaviorists and other dog professionals, the take away from this research is that we should encourage our clients to walk with their dogs, not only for the many benefits that the dogs will enjoy, but to take advantage of the health benefits for themselves. This seems like a no-brainer and is a win-win for dogs and people both. Additionally, we can advocate for more accessible, dog-friendly walking areas in our communities.
By this, I do not mean more dog parks.
Up on my box: In case you think this is going to be a rant from an exercise fanatic who thinks every dog park visitor should get off of her duff and start lapping the park periphery with their Border Collie, well, that is not where this is going at all. (Though, I was tempted).
Rather, here is my issue regarding the evidence from these studies. The Westgarth study makes the point that one way to encourage dog owners to walk more with their dogs (or to walk at all with their dogs) is to provide areas in communities that are specifically designed for dog walking. They address the need for areas that are pleasurable places to walk (i.e. have trails and paths), are accessible, and of course are welcoming to dogs. In other words…….parks. Most dog parks provide none of this stuff. As described in the Evenson study, many dog parks are small areas, usually less than a few acres, and are relegated to crappy bits of land that were either not suitable for any other type of use or are adjacent to larger and more attractive public parks.
Evenson’s paper provides evidence of this. All of the 6 sites that they studied were small (less than 2 acres) and were adjacent to parks that were used for other human recreation purposes. Of the six dog parks, the authors noted that three were developed on land that was located beneath or near power lines, and all six were located adjacent to, across the street from, or almost a mile away from the public park. Given their small sizes, none of these dog parks could provide walking opportunities for people and their dogs. I know that some people are going to respond that they do not go to the dog park for their own exercise, but rather they go so that their dog can play and romp off-lead and can interact (for good or for bad) with other dogs. I completely understand the benefits of allowing dogs to have off-lead play time and personally love to hike with my own dogs off-lead. However, regardless of my opinion regarding the safety of dog parks, my point in this essay is that the over-emphasis of dog parks in communities, parks that are often small and undesirable snippets of land, can lead to the further segregation of our dogs from the rest of society and certainly will not encourage dog walks and the positive benefits that they have for dogs and owners alike.
So, if you love your dog park and are now in a snit regarding this evidence (and my opinion), let me ask this: If you frequent dog parks with your dog, do you also take him walking with you, on new routes around your neighborhood, or to area walking paths and parks, so that you can walk together and enjoy exercising with your dog? If not, you should. Because dog parks ain’t doin’ it for us.
Nuff said. Off box. Going out for a walk with my dogs.
- Richards EA, McDonough M, Edwards N, Lyle R, roped PJ. Psychosocial and environmental factors associated with dog walking. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education 2013;51:198-211.
- Richards EA, Troped PJ, Lim E. Assessing the intensity of dog walking and impact on overall physical activity: A pilot study using accelerometry. Open Journal of Preventive Medicine 2014;4:523-528.
- Westgarth C, Christley RM, Christian HE. How might we increase physical activity through dog walking? A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2014;11:83-97.
- Evenson KR, Shay E, Williamson S, Cohen DA. Use of dog parks and the contribution to physical activity for their owners. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 2016; March 1; 1-9; DOI 10.1080/02701367.2016.1143909
Full Disclosure: If you have been reading The Science Dog for any period of time, it is not a surprise to learn that I am not a big fan of dog parks. Among trainers, I am certainly not alone in this opinion. That said, while I do not frequent them myself, we do have a few clients at my training school who use them and we make sure that they are aware of the safety risks and that they always carefully supervise their dogs if they go.
Interested in more dog training and behavior myth-busting? See Linda Case’s book – “Dog Smart: Evidence-based Training with The Science Dog“!