January 03, 2017

Dog Walking May Affect Dog Owners' Perceptions of Neighborhood Safety

In a first-of-its-kind international study, researchers have found that dog walking increased levels of perceived neighborhood surveillance and safety in some communities.
By Laurie Anne Walden, DVM, ELS
In a survey conducted in four cities in the United States and Australia, people who walked dogs were more physically active than non–dog walkers. Dog walking increased the levels of perceived neighborhood surveillance and safety in some communities, although investigators found differences between the two countries. The study results were published in BMC Public Health.
 
“Qualitative research shows that owners (particularly women) feel safer when walking with their dog and suggests that dog ownership and dog walking may be a deterrent for local crime,” write the authors. “This appears to be one of the first studies to investigate the relationship between dog walking and perceptions of neighborhood safety.”
 
The investigators used data from a telephone survey of adults in three US cities (San Diego, Nashville, and Portland) and one Australian city (Perth). Of the 2,692 participants, 1,113 owned dogs.
 
In all four cities, dog walkers walked in their neighborhoods and local parks more often than people who did not walk dogs. Dog walkers walked an average of five to six times per week and attained at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity on more days per week than did non–dog walkers. “This multi-site international study provides further support of the potential for dog walking to increase the proportion of the community who engage in daily physical activity,” say the authors.
 
The investigators found some differences among the four cities when comparing perceptions of safety and natural neighborhood surveillance levels (“eyes on the street”). Compared with non–dog walkers, dog walkers in Portland thought there were more neighborhood problems, and those in Nashville perceived a higher neighborhood surveillance level. The researchers suggest that people who spend time walking dogs notice more of their neighborhoods’ attributes, both positive and negative, than do those who do not walk dogs.
 
Significantly more dog walkers walked in local parks in Perth (80%) than in the three US cities (28%–45%). Compared with dog walkers in Perth, dog walkers in the three US cities felt safer, perceived higher neighborhood surveillance levels, and thought they would feel safer if there were neighborhood surveillance. The authors note that if Perth dog owners spend less time walking in their neighborhoods than in parks, they might perceive lower levels of neighborhood surveillance. According to the authors, the differences between countries could be explained by differences in the design of public spaces. For example, dog owners walk their dogs in multipurpose public parks more often in Australia than in the United States, they say.
 
Over three-fourths of dog walkers overall said they had gotten to know their neighborhoods by walking their dogs. “Dog walking itself may provide an important source of ‘eyes on the street,’” write the investigators. They suggest that the presence of dog walkers could contribute to neighborhood safety by increasing the level of natural surveillance.
 
Overall, dog walkers did not feel safer than non–dog walkers in their neighborhoods. However, women were more than twice as likely as men to feel safer when walking with their dogs. The investigators note two potential reasons for this: the presence of a dog could make women feel safer, and a safe neighborhood could encourage women to walk their dogs.
 
The study results highlight the potential benefits of dog walking for both individuals and communities, conclude the authors. They recommend further study of the relationship between perceived neighborhood safety and dog walking. Because of the differences between countries, they also suggest research to clarify how culture can influence dog walking and neighborhood environments.
 
Dr. Laurie Anne Walden received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from North Carolina State University. After an internship in small animal medicine and surgery at Auburn University, she returned to North Carolina, where she has been in small animal primary care practice for over 20 years. Dr. Walden is also a board-certified editor in the life sciences and owner of Walden Medical Writing, LLC. She works as a full-time freelance medical writer and editor and continues to see patients a few days each month.

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