October 07, 2017

The Dog-Human Bond Influences Dog Walking Behavior

The dog-human bond can motivate, or demotivate, an owner to walk their dog.
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
Adequate physical activity is important for overall health. For humans, getting less than the recommended 150 minutes of weekly exercise can result in obesity and chronic disease; dogs who aren’t physically active can also become obese. Dog walking helps increase physical activity, which could have substantial public health implications if more dog owners regularly walked their dogs.

Dogs are unique motivators for human physical activity. In particular, the dog-human relationship is reportedly associated with several aspects of dog walking, including social support, obligation, and encouragement. However, little is currently known about how this complex relationship affects motivation for dog walking. Previous studies investigating this motivation primarily considered only the dog’s needs.

The current study, recently published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, used interviews with dog owners to determine how perceptions and beliefs about dog ownership and dog walking influence dog walking behavior. The study’s researchers believed this “is the most in-depth study of dog owner’s beliefs and perceptions relating to dog walking to date.”

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Conducting the Interviews
The research team conducted in-depth and short interviews with 38 dog owners in North-West United Kingdom. When possible during the in-depth interviews, researchers accompanied the dog owners on their dog walks.

To supplement the interview data, Dr. Carri Westgarth, the study’s first author, completed an autoethnography of her dog walking experiences over 2 years. Autoethnographies are autobiographies that connect an author’s personal experiences to a wider social and cultural context.

Interview Findings
A dog’s fundamental need for exercise was the primary motivator for dog walking. Owners based this perceived need largely on how exercise benefits people. For example, one owner said, “I’m trying to keep [my dog] fit and healthy and treat him like I am myself.”

Although owners generally agreed that dogs need daily exercise, actual dog walking frequency and distance varied widely among owners. Owners perceived and determined their individual dog’s exercise needs using factors like size and breed. Other than walking, which was the primary exercise for dogs, some owners played fetch or other games for exercise.

Notably, interpretation of dog behavior was a strong motivator or demotivator for dog walking. Forexample, nervous or fearful behavior was a demotivator, indicated by one owner’s remarks: “For [my dog], it was too stressful to go on a walk every day.” On the contrary, excited or happy behavior motivated dog walking.
Owners perceived many dog benefits of dog walking, including improved fitness and mental stimulation.

Despite an owner’s desire for dog walking, health challenges and time constraints often made dog walking a challenge. On the other hand, some owners reported that dog ownership encouraged habit formation, which in turn promoted dog walking.

Dog walking provided psychological benefits for owners. For example, owners felt less stressed and more connected to nature and their dogs during walks. These benefits were often enhanced by the perceived dog benefits, a concept the researchers termed “vicarious pleasure.”

Neither owner physical exercise nor human social interaction were primary motivators for dog walking.

Bringing it Together
Overall, the interviews revealed “a complex inter-relationship between the dog’s and owner’s needs,” wrote the researchers. This relationship was constantly renegotiated as owners juggled their dog walking responsibilities with other life obligations.

Given this complex relationship, researchers suggested a holistic approach to dog walking interventions, including such strategies as promoting “shared happiness” between dogs and owners and encouraging habit formation. They emphasized, though, that “behavior change is unlikely without addressing the needs and perceptions of the owner about both themselves and the dogs, on an individual and ongoing basis.”

 
Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. Following veterinary school, she completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Emory University’s Yerkes National Primate Research Center. Dr. Pendergrass is the founder and owner of JPen Communications, a medical communications company.

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