Does a Good Relationship With the Dog Mean More Walks?

Amongst older adults, the human-canine bond plays a role in dog walking.

Posted Oct 18, 2017

dandaviddesigns/Pixabay
Source: dandaviddesigns/Pixabay

A new study finds that the older adults who walk their dog the most are those who have a stronger bond with their pet.

The study, by Dr. Angela Curl (Miami University) et al (2017), looked at dog walking behaviour in US residents aged 50 and above. It found that simply owning a dog was not linked to better health or to getting more exercise, but dog walking is linked to health benefits. And dog walking happened more often if people had a good bond with their dog.

Dr. Jessica Bibbo (Purdue University), one of the authors of the study, told me in an email,

“We used a large and nationally representative dataset of adults (the Health and Retirement Study) to investigate the associations between dog walking, the bond with a dog, and physical health. The associations between dog walking and physical health were not a huge surprise—though to have empirical evidence from such a large sample was great.

“What I was excited about were the associations we found between the strength of the bond with the dog and dog walking behavior. We found that people with a stronger bond walked their dogs more often and for shorter distances.  It’s possible, but pure speculation, that the shorter distance may have been in response to physical health of either the person or the dog.”

The dog owners who walked their dogs went out between 1 and 12 times a day, and the average walk was 30 minutes long.

The stronger the bond with their dog, the more likely people were to take it for a walk. A stronger human-animal bond was linked to more minutes a day spent dog walking (but not walking more times a day).

And while it might not be a surprise, it’s good to know that dog walking was linked to better health in terms of a lower BMI, fewer visits to the doctor in the previous two years, fewer chronic health conditions (such as high blood pressure, cancer, heart problems, and arthritis), and fewer limitations in their daily activities.

In fact, dog owners were more likely to have a chronic health condition. So although simply owning a dog was not linked to better health, taking the dog for walks was.

The study also sheds light on why some dog owners do not walk their dog. Of those who did not, 40 percent said it was because of the dog (e.g., pulls on leash, badly behaved), 16 percent said it was for health reasons (their's or the dog’s health), 6 percent said it was lack of interest or time, and 37 percent did not give a reason.

The average number of dogs each owner had was 1.6, but amongst those who walked their dogs, it was 1.49.

Dog walkers were also asked if their walking was different when with a dog than without. The frequency and speed of walking did not differ, but a higher bond with the dog meant that people said they walked a shorter distance on a dog walk compared to how far they walked without the dog. However, the older people were, the more likely they were to say they walked more frequently, faster, and further on dog walks compared to walking without the dog. This suggests dog walking may be especially important as people age.

We might expect that stronger attachment to a dog would lead to longer walks. So it’s interesting—and surprising—that a stronger bond with the dog was linked to walking for more minutes, but a shorter distance. It is possible that health had an influence on this, or it could be that a stronger bond means owners allow their dogs more time to do doggie things like sniff or greet other dogs. The researchers say that although their study does not answer these questions, it does show that a person’s relationship with the dog influences dog walking behaviour.

One of the nice things about the study is that the sample is nationally representative. The scientists analysed data from the Health and Retirement Study, which more than 36,000 Americans have taken part in. Participants in 2012 were asked questions about pet ownership. The researchers excluded people who had a pet that wasn’t a dog, as well as people who had recently lost a pet, as this may have influenced responses. Given they were looking at health measures, the researchers did not use responses from people who were underweight in case it was associated with a health condition. The final sample was 271 dog owners (of whom 98 did not walk their dog) and 500 people who did not own a dog.

Another good thing is that the researchers were able to control for factors such as age, gender, marital status, and household income in the statistical analysis. This is important because they may vary between people who have pets and those who don’t (as explained in this post by Hal Herzog, Ph.D.).

Of course, the study is correlational and does not prove causation, and because it relies on an existing data set it was not possible to ask extra questions (e.g., about people’s motivation to walk the dog).

The finding that dog walking is linked to better health in older adults has implications for the design of communities and retirement homes. The researchers suggest they should be pet-friendly and could incorporate walking trails so that dog owners could continue to walk their dog, as this is likely to have health benefits for the owners.

Another implication relates to people who said they did not walk their dog because of dog-related reasons. It means encouraging dog owners to use no-pull harnesses and resolve reactivity issues may have implications not just for the dog but also for the owner’s health.

These are fascinating results and it’s interesting to think it may be dog walking, rather than dog ownership per se, that is good for dog owners’ health.

References

Curl, A. L., Bibbo, J., & Johnson, R. A. (2017). Dog Walking, the Human–Animal Bond and Older Adults’ Physical Health. The Gerontologist, 57(5), 930-939.