Dog walking is a key contributor to human physical activity levels and should be encouraged.
Owners are demotivated to walk their dogs if they do not find the experience enjoyable or do not have convenient access to good dog walking locations.
The perception that small dogs require less exercise is a barrier to dog walking, but size isn’t everything; breed perceptions matter too.
A recent trial showed that increased exercise alone did not lead to significant weight loss in overweight dogs, whilst dietary caloric restriction did.
Physical activity is known as the “best buy for public health” 1 due to its impact on multiple physical and psychological causes of morbidity and mortality, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, obesity, cancers and mental health 2 3. It is recommended that adults achieve a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity per week – which can include brisk walking – but only 75% of adults on average meet the recommended guidelines, and this figure worsens in women, youth, older adults and higher income countries 4. Walking is recommended as the safest and most affordable physical activity, and considerable official effort is involved on interventions to encourage people to increase the time they spend walking in their daily lives 5.
Arguably the most powerful physical activity motivator we know is already found in many homes. Multiple studies across different countries have identified a cross-sectional association between dog ownership and increased physical activity levels of owners 6. A recent UK study noted 87% of dog owners were found to meet physical activity guidelines compared to 63% of non-owners 7. However, there is a question of whether dog ownership makes people more active, or more active people choose to get dogs; a handful of longitudinal studies tentatively support the former theory 6 8. This increased exercise appears to be due to taking more frequent and longer recreational walks if you own a dog, with no evidence that more intense forms of activity are substituted by time spent dog walking 7. However, the amount of dog walking that occurs also appears to be culture and country specific, with a lower occurrence in North America and Australia compared to the UK, which may be due to climate and weather differences 7. Thankfully, dog owners are less deterred from walking due to bad weather than people without a dog (Figure 1) 9, which partly explains why dog owners are so active compared to their non-owning peers, especially in the UK. There is also the question of how active dog walking is; sitting in a park whilst your dog runs around (Figure 2) is not really “walking”, but one study suggests 78% of dog walking can be classified as moderate and 4% as vigorous intensity, clearly sufficient for health benefits 10.
Physical activity is also important for dogs in terms of both physical health and mental stimulation. Approximately half of all pet dogs are overweight 11 12 and given that obesity develops as a result of a long-term imbalance between calorie intake and expenditure 13 owners may feel that simply increasing exercise is the solution for an obese dog. However, in a recent randomized controlled trial, increasing exercise alone did not lead to significant weight loss, whilst dietary caloric restriction did 14. Similarly in humans, small increases in walking are also not sufficient for weight loss 15. With this in mind, increased walking is likely to be beneficial for many dogs, but should not substitute for dietary advice when dealing with overweight pets.
Barriers and motivators for dog walking
Although at a population level dog owners are more physically active, there are still many people who do not walk their dogs as much as they perhaps should or could. One review suggested only 60% of owners walk with their dog on average 4 times (for a total of 160 minutes) per week 6, which supports the design of public health interventions to encourage people to walk with their dogs more often 8. A number of factors associated with increased or decreased dog walking behavior have been identified as potential targets, but the strongest evidence is linked to the nature of the human-dog relationship; some dog-owner relationships are better at providing social support, motivation, and obligation for dog walking than others 16. Recent in-depth interviews and observations with owners about why they walk their dogs and how they decide how often to walk them has identified that when an owner feels they have a close two-way relationship with their dog, it engenders a sense of responsibility to meet the perceived needs of the dog to get exercise 17. Although owners describe walking as done principally “for the dog” it is clear that owners also use it as a mechanism for their own stress relief and relaxation 18. As one owner said;
"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."
This is supported by quantitative research indicating that intrinsic motivators (e.g., enjoying the activity) seem to be more important with regard to dog walking than extrinsic motivators (e.g., to avoid other consequences such as guilt) 19. Key to this enjoyment is the vicarious pleasure experienced when observing a dog having a good time, typically off-leash (Figure 3). Therefore, the ability to access areas where dogs can be allowed off-leash is paramount in order to support owner enjoyment, and thus motivation, for dog walking.
The size of the dog has consistently been found to be a factor associated with dog walking behavior 20, or motivation provided by a dog for walking 21, with small dogs less likely to be walked than larger ones. However, size is a rather crude measure, and exercise amounts vary widely by breed 22, with some of the least-exercised dogs actually falling into the large-breed category (Box 1). The perception that small dogs, or certain breeds, require less exercise is a common barrier to motivation for dog walking, and requires addressing 18.
The behavior of the dog can also demotivate walking, due to two main reasons;
- if the dog appears to dislike exercise
- if the dog’s behavior makes walking stressful
Under these conditions it is easy for the owner to justify it is “best for the dog” not to walk it because it is “nervous” or “lazy” 18. In particular, having multiple dogs to walk may cause problems 20, and the perception that a dog is old or sick, or too overweight, also demotivates 21. The behavior of other people can also discourage participation in dog walking if it is easy to let someone else walk the dog instead of you 21. The establishment of dog walking as a habit or routine has recently been suggested to be important in both qualitative 18 and quantitative research 23. Last but not least, local access to suitable places to walk is also associated with dog walking 24 25, and emphasizes the importance of policy and neighborhood design in providing suitable structures whereby people are encouraged to be physically active (Figure 4).
Practical advice to support dog walking
As a veterinary professional whose expertise is valued by owners, there are a number of ways you can help to promote and motivate dog walking, which will not only benefit your patients but also their owners:
- Address perceptions that small or old dogs do not need much exercise. As long as their health allows (which the veterinarian can check and validate), most dogs are capable of walking for at least 30 minutes every day, and many much more than this. Give owners examples of how increased walking may benefit the health and quality of life of their much-loved pet.
- Help owners to schedule dog walks and get into a routine. Many owners want to walk more, but in reality it does not happen. Translation from intention into action is an important aspect of human behavior change. Take a few minutes to ask owners when would be the best time in their daily schedule to walk the dog, where they will do the walking, and get them to commit to it in their calendar by logging it as an appointment. If they struggle to get up early to walk, suggest laying out their dog walking clothes the night before so that it requires less effort in the morning.
- Provide training advice on loose-leash walking and recall. In the author’s experience these two behaviors are the most important to dog owners, and conquering either or both will make dog walking far more pleasurable and motivating to the owners. Box 2 and Box 3 offer tips and advice that the veterinarian can pass on to the owner.
As a veterinary professional whose expertise is valued by owners, there are a number of ways you can help promote and motivate dog walking, which will not only benefit your patients but also their owners.
- Refer for specialist help with more challenging behavior problems such as aggression. Serious behavior problems – such as aggression to owners – will damage the dog-owner bond and reduce the sense of responsibility to meet the needs of the dog for sufficient exercise. Aggression towards strangers and/or other dogs will make walking far more difficult for the owner and thus reduce the motivation to do it. You can help by referring the owner to a competent and experienced dog behavior counselor – usually someone affiliated to a nationally recognized canine training association. It is important that a counselor is both sufficiently qualified and uses reward-based training, as methods based on punishment or aversion are likely to make the dog even more fearful, and the behavior will worsen long term.
- Advocate for sufficient provision and design of dog walking locations. Owners need places that they can walk their dogs and that are close enough to be able to schedule into their busy lives. Be involved in advocating for quality dog walking areas near your practice that allow dogs to be off-leash in large, interesting places, with circular routes that encourage both owners and dogs to move and explore. Small enclosed “off-leash” parks can be detrimental to both owners (who drive there and then stand or sit) and dogs (who are forced into interactions with other dogs that they do not enjoy). You could also provide clients with a list of local walking locations/routes in case they do not know them all.
Box 2. Advice for owners on training for loose-leash walking.
There are many harnesses and headcollars on the market that can help with pulling, but they are not – as most owners think – a magic wand. They still require dog training, but they make the process easier. The best aids are headcollars or harnesses that attach at the muzzle and allow a “power steering” effect to direct the dog during training (Figure 5). Collars that tighten around the neck can actually teach a dog to pull (in an attempt to get away from the pain) and should be avoided. Harnesses where the leash attaches at the back of the dog should also be avoided, as this just gives them even more strength to pull through their shoulders.
- It takes two to pull, and many owners make the mistake of having a tight leash that forces their dog to pull against it. Start with the dog on either your left or right side (as preferred, but be consistent) and the leash neither too long or too short but just loose enough; the aim should be to walk with the dog at your side, not in front (Figure 6).
- Many owners try to use food treats as a reward for walking on the leash, and these can be used on occasion, but the real reward for the dog is that he is able to walk forwards, where he wants to go; so when the dog is at your side, you walk.
- As soon as the dog creeps in front of your leg line, and before he hits the end of the leash and has been “rewarded” for moving ahead (even for a second), stop walking and encourage him to return to your side.
- In order for the dog to learn that getting in front of you is unwanted, a rapid response is essential, so as soon as he has returned to your side, praise him and walk forward again.
- This takes a lot of practice and is quite difficult to integrate into real life; sometimes if there is no time for all the back-and-forth of a training session, simply get on and do the walk. A top tip is to have two kinds of leashes, one where the dog can pull a bit (not dragging, but not perfect walking either) and another leash for perfect walking. When there is time for training, use the leash where no pulling is ever rewarded; when a quick walk is needed, use the other one.
Box 3. Advice for owners with recall training.
- Does the dog even know his name? If not, it can be impossible to get his attention in a distracting environment. Start by saying his name and giving him a morsel of dog food, then repeat again, and again. Soon the dog should look at you whenever hearing his name, because he expects a tasty treat.
- Once the dog knows his name and will focus on you, teach him a word that means “come”. With your dog on a lead, or in a small, safe space off-lead, hold a small food reward low down just in front of your knees; say his name, the command “come”, and walk backwards. Your dog’s nose should follow the treat and he should follow you backwards. After a few steps, stop and give him the food and praise (Figure 7). Repeat many times, increasing the distance between you and the dog, so that he has to turn and run towards you as you move backwards. If he ignores you, stop and put the treat on his nose and lure him towards you; don’t just keep repeating his name.
- Get someone to hold your dog by the collar or harness whilst you show him the treat he can win, and then run a few paces away. Then you call your dog, and the assistant either releases the collar or runs with the dog (Figure 8). Because you have left the dog, rather than the dog walking away from you, he is much more inclined to want to follow you. Praise and reward with a treat when he gets to you.
- These exercises should mean that your dog will be able to complete a successful recall; this is very important, because in the real world a dog will have a choice to make: i) to come to the owner or ii) go and see the more interesting dog, squirrel etc. Coming when called must be linked with a reward, and never punished (no matter how long it takes), but more importantly it must become a habit that is done without the dog really thinking about it. Therefore, it is very important to practice, practice, and practice; the more times a dog is called but does not return, the more times he is learning to ignore you instead. For this reason, only call your dog when you think you have a 90% chance of him responding. If in doubt, keep your dog on a lead or a trailing line so that he can be managed until you are more confident he will respond correctly.
The most powerful motivator for increased physical activity is already found in many homes; multiple studies have shown a positive association between dog ownership and increased activity levels of owners.
What if an owner cannot walk with their dog? Sometimes, taking long walks can be difficult, for example, owner health limitations. Firstly, owners can be advised to ask their physician what amount of exercise is suitable for their needs, and some level of walking is likely achievable. Secondly, rather than just advising they get a dog walker if they cannot provide sufficient exercise by themselves, there are other ways that an owner can be active with their dog, including agility or obedience training, teaching tricks and playing games. Some movement together is far better than none.
Dog walking is important for the health and wellbeing of both dogs and their owners, and should be facilitated. Strategies identified for increasing dog walking include tackling behavioral and training issues in order to make walks more enjoyable for owners, challenging perceptions of exercise needs of small dogs, teaching owners how to form regular dog-walking habits, and advocating for the provision of environments suitable for off-leash dog walking. Without our pet dogs, population physical activity levels, and in turn physical and mental health, would be far worse.
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