September 07, 2017

The Lassie Effect: Factors That Affect Dog Walking Behavior

Only 40% of dog owners actually walk their dogs. What motivates them to do it?
By JoAnna Pendergrass, DVM
From a public health perspective, dog walking provides an avenue for positive and sustained increases in physical activity, which can lower cardiovascular disease risk. Despite a large percentage of households owning dogs, however, a recent study reported that only about 40% of owners actually walk their dogs.

A BMC Public Health study on dog walking behavior reported that various demographic and behavioral factors contribute to the “Lassie effect,” an aspect of the dog-human relationship that attaches special meaning to an owner’s sense of encouragement and motivation to walk his or her dog. “Understanding [these] factors,” the study’s researchers wrote, “will help inform the design of interventions that use the pet dog to initiate, increase and maintain walking behavior.”

Previous studies have identified the dog-human relationship as a key influence on dog walking. For example, feeling responsible for a dog’s physical activity can affect dog walking behavior. In addition, motivation and encouragement provided by dogs reportedly influence whether they are walked or not.

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The Lassie effect alludes to a dog’s special ability to increase physical activity over other forms of motivation and social support. Until this current study, though, the factors contributing to or detracting from the Lassie effect had not been identified.

Analyzing the Data
Researchers analyzed data collected from 629 Australian dog owners who participated in the RESIDE survey, which determined how urban design affects health. They selected two Lassie effect outcomes, both previously shown to be independent dog walking predictors:
  • Motivation – “Having a dog makes me walk more.”
  • Encouragement – “My dog encouraged me to go walking.”
Although motivation and encouragement appear to be similar, motivation pertains to maintenance of dog walking and encouragement relates to initiation.

Numerous dog and owner factors were also analyzed, examples of which are below:
  • Dog factors: Dog size, level of attachment to dog
  • Owner factors: Children <18 years at home, social support from other people to go walking
Results
Several factors were positively associated with motivation and encouragement:
  • Keeping dog healthy
  • High level of attachment
  • Social support from family
  • Owning a medium/large dog
  • Knowing the dog enjoys going for a walk
Other factors were negatively associated with both outcomes:
  • Children <18 years at home
  • Child as the primary dog walker
  • Perceived dog-specific barriers (eg, walking 2 dogs, fear of other dogs)
Some factors were associated only with motivation. For example, a belief that daily dog walking reduces barking was a positive motivator. This supports previous findings that owners perceive improved dog behavior with dog walking and are thus incentivized to walk their dog. Why this perception was not associated with encouragement in this study was unknown.

In addition, having a sick, old, or overweight dog were negative motivators. In these cases, the researchers wrote, an owner may feel less motivated or obliged to walk the dog, regardless of encouragement provided by the dog.

Given these findings, the researchers concluded that “dog-specific and dog-human relationship factors are important to perceptions regarding the need to walk the dog.”

Looking Forward
Because motivation and encouragement are seemingly so similar, researchers suggested that further studies will improve our understanding of these two variables as they relate to dog walking.

The study’s findings can be used to develop interventions to increase dog walking and physical activity, wrote the researchers. For example, owner education and dog training could help address the dog-specific barriers to dog walking. Also, interventions could change perceptions about how much exercise a dog needs, based on its size.

With these different intervention approaches, the researchers emphasized that “interdisciplinary collaboration between health promotion practitioners, veterinarians, and dog behavior experts is key.”

 
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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