Pixabay/Creative Commons
Source: Pixabay/Creative Commons

Dog owners are statistically more physically active than non-owners, especially when the weather is terrible. A July 2017 study found that two thirds of dog owners walked their dogs at least once a day and that regular dog walkers were consistently more active (and less sedentary) on days with the worst weather conditions than non-dog owners were on the days with the best meteorological conditions. But what motivates dog owners to make regular physical activity a part of their daily routine come rain or shine?

Recently, the most in-depth study of dog owners' motivations for dog walking to date reported that the happiness created by knowing that regular exercise was making the owner's dog happier and healthier was the prime motivating force that kept dog owners walking regularly. Notably, the myriad of health benefits owners gained by walking regularly with their dog were a negligible source of motivation in most cases. This paper, “I Walk My Dog Because It Makes Me Happy: A Qualitative Study to Understand Why Dogs Motivate Walking and Improved Health," was published August 19 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

For this first-of-its-kind dog walking study, researchers from the University of Liverpool conducted extensive interviews and collected personal written reflections of each participant’s personal dog walking motivations. Although most dog owners said the primary reason they walked regularly with their non-human "significant other" was the well-being of their dog, the symbiotic feedback loop of improved psychological and physical health created an upward spiral of wellness for all parties involved. 

These findings help to explain why most public health initiatives that prescribe dog ownership as a way to increase physical activity generally fail to trigger anticipated behavioral changes. Typically, these dog walking campaigns have focused strictly on the owner’s physical health—while underestimating the altruistic motivation that drives dog owners to go above and beyond active steps they would take for their own well-being when it comes to ensuring the happiness and health of their dog. 

The University of Liverpool researchers also found that the degree of self-reported happiness an owner derived from habitual walks with his or her dog was directly correlated with a presumption that the dog was reaping benefits by taking regular walks. Of course, not every dog is of an age or agility level that he or she will love going for long walks. That said, if your dog does enjoy going for walks, the latest research suggests that focusing on various ways that walking keeps your dog happy and healthy will motivate you to walk more regularly than simply dwelling on your own health benefits. 

To sum up the main takeaway of this study, the authors write: “In conclusion, social relationships, even with non-human others, can impact physical activity behavior, through engendering a sense of responsibility to another and shared pleasure. Dog walking is used to meet the emotional needs of the owner as well as the physical needs of the dog. Possible key points for future intervention to increase dog walking are to promote how it may increase the dog’s, and thus the owner’s, happiness, or targeted habit formation.”

From a public health perspective, motivating dog owners to walk their dogs for a total of 30 minutes a day easily exceeds the 150 minutes of physical activity recommended by the CDC each week. Hopefully, this research will inspire dog owners and public health advocates to remember that putting the well-being of someone's dog on the front burner may be the most effective way to make regular dog walks a joyful part of a dog owner's daily routine regardless of weather conditions.  

References

Westgarth, Carri, Robert M. Christley, Garry Marvin, and Elizabeth Perkins. "I Walk My Dog Because It Makes Me Happy: A Qualitative Study to Understand Why Dogs Motivate Walking and Improved Health." International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 14, no. 8 (2017): 936. DOI: 10.3390/ijerph14080936

Wu, Yu-Tzu, Robert Luben, and Andy Jones. "Dog ownership supports the maintenance of physical activity during poor weather in older English adults: cross-sectional results from the EPIC Norfolk cohort." J Epidemiol Community Health (2017): jech-2017. DOI: 10.1136/jech-2017-208987

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