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True Fact: Dog-Walking Helps Dogs But Harms Birds

The good news and bad news about dog-walking

One of the best aspects of being a member of the International Society for Anthrozoology (ISAZ) is that our annual meetings are often held in great places. This year, it was in Stockholm. While my wife Mary Jean was out obsessively tracing the real-life haunts of the Millennium Trilogy fictional characters Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist, I was listening to talks on the differences in empathy between vegetarians and meat-eaters and the relationship between the personalities of dogs and their owners.

There were lots of fascinating presentations at the conference, but one that really caught my interest was on dog-walking. The talk was by Rebecca Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri. Rebecca's group specializes in research on the benefits of dog-walking on people. This experiment, however, was different. It focused on the fates of dogs in animal shelters who were facing the needle.

The Good News...

The researchers wanted to know if regular walks could help keep these dogs from being euthanized. The design of their experiment was simple. Dogs in animal shelters were randomly assigned to one of two groups. The dogs that lucked out were assigned to the Walking Group. They were taken for walks five days a week by volunteer older adults, while the sad sacks in the Control Group sat glumly in their cages. The researchers regularly evaluated the behavior of the dogs in each group and kept track of their ultimate fate.

The results were impressive. During the study, the dogs in the Walking Group became much better behaved and social than the animals in the Control Group. More importantly, 75% of dogs who were taken for walks

Rates of adoption and euthanasia in shelter dogs.

were adopted into permanent homes compared to only 35% of animals in the Control Group. But the heartbreaker is that 27% of dogs who by sheer random chance found themselves in the Control Group were euthanized while only 9% of their luckier peers were, as they say, "put to sleep."

In addition to being good for dogs, the University of Missouri researchers found that dog-walking benefits the walkers. For example, they have found that older adults who regularly walk shelter dogs have much greater increases in their "physical functioning" (as measured by how far they can walk in a set time) than subjects in "no walk" or "walk with a friend" control groups.

Because of the obesity epidemic, the beneficial effect of walking dogs on human health has become a hot research topic in anthrozoological circles. I think the jury is still out on whether getting a dog will cause you to lose weight -- and more importantly -- to keep it off. It is clear, however, that, as a rule, dog walkers get more weekly exercise than non-dog owners. In addition to getting people off their butts and away from their computers and TVs, dog walking facilitates social contacts with other people. This is particularly important in older people who feel isolated.

The Bad News....

But what's good for dogs is bad for the birds. It's a true fact.

The evidence is in a paper published in the journal Biology Letters by Peter Banks and Jessica Bryant of the University of New South Wales in Australia. Their study was ambitious. Banks and Bryant made bird counts in 90 woodland sites not far from Sydney. Half of the sites were regularly visited by dog walkers, while in the other half, dog walking was prohibited. The researchers studied the effects of dog walking on resident bird populations by making the counts after either a person walking a dog or a person walking alone strolled through the woods. Of course, they also included a no person/no dog control condition.

The results? Dogs and birds don't mix. Dog walking produced a 41% decline in the number of birds in the wooded tracts. Indeed, a human ambling through the woods alone caused less than half the disruption to birds

Dog walking reduces the number of birds and the number of species.

as a person walking a dog on leash. In addition to reducing the number of birds in the woods, fewer species were found in the wake of dog walkers. Finally, dog walking seems to cause permanent changes in the avian ecology of forests. By comparing bird populations in sites in which dogs were allowed and sites where they were banned, the authors found that even dogs on leashes caused birds to abandon their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.

Human-Animal Relationships and The Law of Unintended Consequences

As I point out in my new book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals, our relationships with animals are fraught with conflicts. They even show up in the fact that our desire to take our dogs for a walk in woods makes life a lot more difficult for the towhees and wrens who make the forest their home. In a later blog, I will show how this law of unintended consequences plays out in a deadly game between predators and pets in the Los Angeles suburbs.


*addendum...Several readers of this blog post took issue with the results of Australian study of the effects of dog-walking on birds. They argued the effect was, in fact, small and that there was no direct evidence that the birds were permanently displaced. One thoughtful reader ("Backwards Dog") even tracked down an unpublished Colorado study in which dog walking had little effect on the behavior of birds. (Dog walking did, however, scare deer.) Here it is. You can make up your own mind. It looks good to me.

Here's a plug for the International Society for Anthrozoology: If you are interested in going to cool places like Stockholm, Tokyo, Amsterdam and Indianapolis to hear about the latest research on human-animal interactions or even if you would prefer to stay home and read about human-animal relationship studies, consider joining ISAZ. As an affiliate or a student member you get a copy of the society's journal Anthrozoös, a 25% discount on the journal Society and Animals, reduced registration fees for the annual ISAZ annual conference, and access to the society's electronic announcement list. It's a great deal. Trust me.

Hal Herzog is Professor of Psychology at Western Carolina University. His new book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard To Think Straight About Animals will be available September 7, 2010 (Harper).

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