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Does It Matter if Dogs Are Walked in the City or in Nature?

Is the concept of a "decompression dog walk" valid?

Key points

  • Some claim that dogs find walking in nature less stressful.
  • Evolutionary considerations suggest that nature walks should be more beneficial.
  • Time spent in green spaces improves health and well-being of humans.
  • For dogs, however, the data shows no difference in stress whether the walk is in nature or on a city sidewalk.
Darya Sannikova / Pexels
Darya Sannikova / Pexels

It is well-established that dogs need to be walked at least once a day in order to maintain both their physical and psychological health (and, of course, to keep your house clean). The length and number of walks seem to make a difference. Dogs that are walked more seem to be happier and healthier. However, in recent years, a number of dog behaviorists have suggested that where your dog walks, namely whether it is on city streets or in more natural settings such as parks or other green spaces, makes a difference.

The argument is that walking in nature helps reduce stress in dogs. People who advocate exercising dogs in green spaces have even given it a label, calling it a "decompression walk." Unfortunately, there has been no systematic scientific testing to compare the outcome of walks done on a city sidewalk to those done in nature. Nevertheless, a recent piece of research by Glenna Cupp at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University at Blacksburg, Virginia provides such a test and the results are not what some people might have expected.

An Evolutionary Hypothesis

Before looking at the new data, it is important to consider where the suggestion that walking in nature is more beneficial to dogs than walking through an urban neighborhood came from.

The idea seems to have been derived from two different sources. The first is a fairly common source of inspiration when it comes to dog behavior. Dogs were domesticated from wild canines and therefore many researchers have assumed that by looking at the behavior of wild canines, such as wolves, we can discover patterns that apply to our family dog as well. Thus, the argument is that since wolves naturally live in green spaces, such as forests, and dogs have evolved from wolves, then the most natural and least stressful environment for our domesticated dogs must similarly be out in nature and not on the street in front of your home. This is the same kind of reasoning that has led to the BARF (Bones and Raw Food) movement, which argues that since raw food comprises the kind of diet that wolves eat in the wild, raw food also must be the best diet for a domestic dog.

This kind of logic is not always sound. Our domestic dogs are genetically different from wolves, resulting in markedly different behavioral patterns and changes in physiology. The potential weakness of such evolutionary reasoning can be demonstrated by using a human analogy: Would it make sense to argue that since humans are descended from apes, that perhaps the least stressful and most beneficial activity that a person could engage in would be swinging from branches of trees?

Conjecture Based on Human Data

The second source for the conjecture that dog walks in nature are more beneficial than urban walks comes from another type of inference. There is a lot of evidence showing strong similarities between the mental functioning of dogs and humans, with dogs showing mental abilities very similar to that of a human child between two and three years of age. Data even shows that dogs and humans can share certain psychological problems, such as depression, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and PTSD. So, it is reasonable to speculate that if something is beneficial for humans, it might also be beneficial for dogs.

In recent years there have been a few well-publicized studies that have concluded that for human beings, spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with improved health and psychological well-being. So the idea has been advanced that if this is the case for humans, it is probably also the case for dogs, hence the idea of "decompression walks" in natural settings for dogs.

Some Actual Data

Suppositions are nice, but ultimately not convincing to scientists. Thus, Glenna Cupp decided to experimentally test whether the environment in which a dog takes its walks makes a difference. She decided to use cortisol as an indication of stress levels. Cortisol levels increase in the blood when an individual (either human or dog) is under increased stress. Unfortunately for an experimenter, frequent sampling of a dog's blood is bound to increase stress in and of itself, however there is a workaround since stress-related cortisol levels also increase in other bodily fluids, including urine.

The study ran over a period of 12 weeks. Each dog would be tested under two conditions: a neighborhood walk and a nature walk. Each walk was about 30 minutes in length. For the neighborhood walk, the dog was on a six-foot (1.8 m) leash and was walked by their owners as they typically did. The nature walks took place in a nearby park or natural area (open fields, wooded areas, or beaches) on a 20-foot (6 m) leash with the dogs allowed the freedom to engage in whatever behaviors they wanted (walking, sniffing, pawing and so forth).

Measuring the cortisol during the tests was a bit messy since owners had to collect urine at 28 time points from their dogs in order to measure the dog's stress levels before, during, and after walks. This involved a "free catch" method in which a plastic tray was held underneath the dog as the bladder was naturally voided. The collected samples were later analyzed for cortisol levels.

So, if you are walking your dog on the city streets, are you, in fact, subjecting him to higher stress levels? The author summarizes her results: "Our findings suggest that nature walks do not constitute a less stressful walk experience." This is based on the fact that there were no differences in cortisol levels depending upon the type of walk the dog was given. This means that urban-dwelling dog owners do not need to transport their pet to some green space in order for the dog to benefit from a walk.

Cupp is rather philosophical in summarizing the outcome of her work when she writes, "If dog owners find nature walks more enjoyable, dogs may be more likely to receive walks of this type with longer durations, leading to the provision of more exercise. Conversely, if access to nature is limited for owners, the ease of neighborhood walks may lead to greater frequency and better health for their dogs."


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Cupp, G.N. (2023). Comparing the Differential Effects of Neighborhood and Nature Walks on Behavior and Urinary Cortisol Levels of Dogs. Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Master of Science thesis, Agricultural and Life Sciences. pp 1 - 70.

White, M. P., Alcock, I., Grellier, J., Wheeler, B. W., Hartig, T., Warber, S. L., Bone, A., Depledge, M. H., & Fleming, L. E. (2019). Spending at least 120 minutes a week in nature is associated with good health and wellbeing. Scientific Reports, 9(1).

Efimova, J. (2019). The life-changing power of decompression walks.

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