Walking the Dog for Happiness As Well As Health

A new U.K. study suggests that people who regularly walk their dogs do so in a pursuit of happiness, rather than to improve physical health or obtain other social benefits.

Experts plan to use this new knowledge to promote the positive emotional outcome from the task. They hope this new perspective will motivate individuals to perform the physical activity which brings physical health benefits to the owner and the pet.

The new focus is necessary as public health professionals note that dog-walking interventions with messages focused on health or social benefits have not been particularly successful.

In the most in-depth study of dog owner’s perceptions of dog-walking to date, University of Liverpool researchers conducted 26 interviews and assessed personal written reflections of dog walking experiences.

The investigators found that while owners may say the reason they go walking is to benefit the dog, the importance of their own improved happiness and well-being is clear.

These feelings of happiness, however, are contingent on the owner believing that their dog is enjoying the walk too. Anything that threatens this, such as behavior problems, a perception that they have a “lazy” dog, or their dog is too old, reduces their motivation to walk.

Increased physical activity and social interactions with other dog owners were found to be secondary bonuses but were rarely motivating.

Dr. Carri Westgarth, a research fellow at the University of Liverpool, said, “The factors that motivate dog walking are extremely complex, yet we know they can strongly motivate human health behavior.”

“It is crucial to understand why owners walk their dogs if we are to be able to effectively promote owners to walk their dogs more.”

With more than eight million dogs in households across the U.K.  (and nearly 10 times that in the United States), dog walking is a popular everyday activity. Dog owners are generally more physically active than non-owners, yet some rarely walk with their dog at all.

An owner briskly walking their dog for at least 30 minutes each day easily exceeds the 150 minutes recommended minimum physical activity per week. If all dog owners did this it would dramatically boost population levels of physical activity.

“It’s clear from our findings that dog walking is used to meet the emotional needs of the owner as well as the needs of the dog. This may explain why pilot dog-walking interventions with messages focused on health or social benefits have not been particularly successful,” Westgarth said.

“Possible key points for future interventions to increase dog walking are to promote how it may increase the dogs, and thus the owner’s, happiness.”

The paper appears in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Source: University of Liverpool