A Walk in the Park (or not)

In my view, one of the many benefits of living with dogs are the walks. All four of my dogs love to hike and run and we spend time together almost every morning at our local forest preserve. The dogs enjoy the exercise and have opportunities to explore, sniff and play, while Mike and I exercise, enjoy the outdoors and spend quality time with our family.

Seriously, what’s not to like?

Linda Cooper Vinny Ally Walking Dog walks can also be social events. A friend and I meet regularly at different parks to go hiking with our dogs. We enjoy exploring new trails and rotate favorite parks so that the dogs get to experience and enjoy a variety of outdoor areas.  Group walks are also a regular part of AutumnGold’s open floor training nights and are great fun for dogs and their people.

Group walk!

For dog folks, it comes as no surprise that this activity is good for us. There is ample evidence that, as a group, dog owners are more physically active than are non-owners and that acquiring a dog often leads to an increase in activity level. Other studies have found that dog owners report physical and psychosocial benefits of walking with their dogs. They get to know other dog walkers in their area, have increased opportunities to meet new people, and develop a sense of community in their neighborhoods. All proven stuff, and not all that noteworthy, since the social and emotional benefits of dog ownership have been known for many years.

However, here is the paradox. Although American dog owners are more likely to engage in regular walking than are non-owners, the actual proportion of dog owners who walk their dogs appears to be quite low. While more than 45 percent of homes in the US have one or more dogs, less than 3 percent of Americans walk their dog for 30 minutes or more per day and between 40 and 60 percent of dog owners do not walk their dogs at all (1).

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THE MAJORITY OF DOG OWNERS DO NOT REGULARLY WALK WITH THEIR DOGS

Why should you care? Well, because walking briskly for 30 minutes daily can achieve the current recommendations for regular physical activity for adults – a level that is seriously under-achieved by many Americans.  Knowing this, several public health researchers have recently identified dog walking as a viable approach to improving the physical activity of adults in populations that are notably under-exercising.

And, being researchers, they did what researchers do…….

Going to try science

THEY STUDIED DOG WALKING

How much dog walking does it take? Elizabeth Richards and a team of researchers at Purdue University were the first  to directly measure the frequency and the intensity of dog walking using activity monitors (think Fit Bit) (2). They outfitted a group of 65 dog owners with accelerometers and collected data over a 7-day period. Owners wore the monitors continuously and recorded the time of day that they started and ended their dog walks. Results: Participants walked their dogs at least one time per day and averaged approximately 30 minutes per walk. During dog walks, almost 80 percent of the exercise was classified as “moderate-vigorous physical activity” (MVPA). About 14 percent of the time was classified as light intensity and 4 percent was sedentary (that must have been the poop stops). The majority of the periods of MVPA occurred in bouts of time that were more than 10 minutes. These distinctions are important because current physical activity guidelines for Americans specify 150 minutes of MVPA per week, achieved in bouts of 10 minutes or more at a time. The authors conclude that: “….dog walking is a type of physical activity that merits greater attention from public health officials and practitioners. Increasing the prevalence of dog walking could help the US attain physical activity objectives….”

Who’s walking (and why)? So, the Purdue study (among others) provides evidence that dog walking can be a great form of exercise (for dog and human). Carri Westgarth and colleagues at the University of Liverpool tackled the next question: What are some of the personal and societal factors that impact an owner’s inclination to walk regularly (or not) with his or her dog? They conducted a systematic review of 31 studies that examined dog ownership and dog walking that had been published over a 22-year period (3). Results: They found that the dedicated dog walkers tend to be owners who possess a strong sense of obligation to their dog’s need for regular exercise and who report that their dog is an important motivator, both for the owner to be active and for spending quality time with their dog. Community factors that are most important include accessibility to public areas that are suitable for walking, that allow off-leash exercise for dogs and that are designed to promote social interactions with other people. Most interesting perhaps is the authors conclusion regarding dog walking areas: “The design of areas intended for dog walking and how they fulfill dog and owner needs may be an important consideration for future interventions. In order to encourage more dog owners to walk their dogs, the recreational areas used for dog walking must be both pleasurable and accessible, as opposed to the common phenomenon of relegating dog access only to the few areas left after other user types have been accommodated.”

From this conclusion, it naturally follows that one may ponder………

What about dog parks? One might ask if the increased number of dog parks in recent years has contributed to dog walking frequency among dog owners. To date only a few studies have examined this relationship. Most recently, Kelly Evenson and several colleagues studied the activity level of dog owners at six different dog parks located in North Carolina, California and Pennsylvania (4). They used a validated measurement tool (The Systematic Observation of Play and Recreation in Communities) to count visitors and monitor activity levels over a one-week period. The researchers also directly interviewed 604 dog park visitors. Results: The primary activity of people who were visiting the dog parks was standing without moving. 79 percent of the recorded activity of dog park visitors was classified as sedentary, 20 percent was walking, and 1 percent was classified as vigorous. The majority of owners (70.4 %) drove their dog to the park, even though many lived less than a mile away. These results were in agreement with two previous studies that collectively examined more than 30 dog parks in multiple states. The authors conclude: “This study……revealed that dog park visitors more often engaged in sedentary behavior or standing without moving than did visitors to other areas of the park……”

Dog Park People

DOG OWNERS EXERCISING AT THE DOG PARK

Take Away for Dog Folks

For trainers, veterinarians, behaviorists and other dog professionals, the take away from this research is that we should encourage our clients to walk with their dogs, not only for the many benefits that the dogs will enjoy, but to take advantage of the health benefits for themselves. This seems like a no-brainer and is a win-win for dogs and people both. Additionally, we can advocate for more accessible, dog-friendly walking areas in our communities.

By this, I do not mean more dog parks.

soapbox

Up on my box: In case you think this is going to be a rant from an exercise fanatic who thinks every dog park visitor should get off of her duff and start lapping the park periphery with their Border Collie, well, that is not where this is going at all. (Though, I was tempted).

Rather, here is my issue regarding the evidence from these studies. The Westgarth study makes the point that one way to encourage dog owners to walk more with their dogs (or to walk at all with their dogs) is to provide areas in communities that are specifically designed for dog walking. They address the need for areas that are pleasurable places to walk (i.e. have trails and paths), are accessible, and of course are welcoming to dogs. In other words…….parks. Most dog parks provide none of this stuff. As described in the Evenson study, many dog parks are small areas, usually less than a few acres, and are relegated to crappy bits of land that were either not suitable for any other type of use or are adjacent to larger and more attractive public parks.

Evenson’s paper provides evidence of this. All of the 6 sites that they studied were small (less than 2 acres) and were adjacent to parks that were used for other human recreation purposes. Of the six dog parks, the authors noted that three were developed on land that was located beneath or near power lines, and all six were located adjacent to, across the street from, or almost a mile away from the public park. Given their small sizes, none of these dog parks could provide walking opportunities for people and their dogs.  I know that some people are going to respond that they do not go to the dog park for their own exercise, but rather they go so that their dog can play and romp off-lead and can interact (for good or for bad) with other dogs. I completely understand the benefits of allowing dogs to have off-lead play time and personally love to hike with my own dogs off-lead. However, regardless of my opinion regarding the safety of dog parks, my point in this essay is that the over-emphasis of dog parks in communities, parks that are often small and undesirable snippets of land, can lead to the further segregation of our dogs from the rest of society and certainly will not encourage dog walks and the positive benefits that they have for dogs and owners alike.

So, if you love your dog park and are now in a snit regarding this evidence (and my opinion), let me ask this: If you frequent dog parks with your dog, do you also take him walking with you, on new routes around your neighborhood, or to area walking paths and parks, so that you can walk together and enjoy exercising with your dog? If not, you should. Because dog parks ain’t doin’ it for us.

Nuff said. Off box. Going for a walk with my friend Mary and our dogs.

Cited Studies:

  1. Richards EA, McDonough M, Edwards N, Lyle R, roped PJ. Psychosocial and environmental factors associated with dog walking. International Journal of Health Promotion and Education 2013;51:198-211.
  2. Richards EA, Troped PJ, Lim E. Assessing the intensity of dog walking and impact on overall physical activity: A pilot study using accelerometry.  Open Journal of Preventive Medicine 2014;4:523-528.
  3. Westgarth C, Christley RM, Christian HE. How might we increase physical activity through dog walking? A comprehensive review of dog walking correlates. International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2014;11:83-97.
  4. Evenson KR, Shay E, Williamson S, Cohen DA. Use of dog parks and the contribution to physical activity for their owners. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport 2016; March 1; 1-9; DOI 10.1080/02701367.2016.1143909

Full Disclosure: If you have been reading The Science Dog for any period of time, it is not a surprise to learn that I am not a big fan of dog parks. Among trainers, I am certainly not alone in this opinion. That said, while I do not frequent them myself, we do have a few clients at my training school who use them and we make sure that they are aware of the safety risks and that they always carefully supervise their dogs if they go.

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).

coversnip

14 thoughts on “A Walk in the Park (or not)

  1. I agree on all the exercise aspects, and in this city the most popular dog park is adjacent to several grass playing fields, which also have walking paths around, and leashed dogs are allowed. So one can take a long walk around, then relax as your dog plays.

    I’m familiar with Evenson’s dog park study, and you’d find ours quite different from those she reported on. And, no dog park study I’ve seen has ever noted several dozen people working together to jointly manage all the dogs to keep things under control while having fun. Yet, that’s what we have most days there.

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    • Hi Gerry, It sounds like you have a great dog park in your area that is close enough to walking trails to encourage their use (and I know that they do exist). That is so great for you and for your dogs! However, there are also many similar to those described in Evenson’s study. My only point is that dog parks, as a rule, are not conducive to getting out and walking with our dogs because they are too small and because they often segregate dog owners to areas that are not close to other natural areas. Thanks for your comment, as always (and happy walking!) Linda

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  2. This was a great read! I am always taken aback by rescue groups which require a fenced yard – I tend to believe that many apartment dogs have richer lives than dogs with access to a back yard since apartment dogs are bound to get several walks a day no matter the weather. I’m not a fan of dog parks, either, and my dogs get two walks per day of varying length.

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    • Hi Lara – I completely agree about the odd (and illogical) fixation on fenced yards by some rescue groups. (We look at fenced yards as poop places, that is about it). And, yay for you and your dogs and your walks! I bet they have a grand time with you! Thanks for the comment and happy walking! Linda

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      • That’s interesting, as I don’t recall any of the rescues I’ve worked with requiring fenced yards, unless there’s a likelihood of the dog being chained in the yard. One of my fosters was starved on a chain, and another had an embedded collar. As to richer lives, I feel that depends far more on the people than the situation, and I wouldn’t look at walks alone as giving richer lives, but just the minimum.

        Instead, I go for the park walks that Linda wrote about, and every few weeks we visit a different one, so they can sniff out what’s new there.

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    • I would not have dogs without a fenced yard. I feel enormous sympathy with dogs who LIVE inside houses (apartments, units).
      However I do not see the need for only walking my dogs ‘leash free’ in fenced areas. I would never take my dogs into the sorts of ‘dog parks” that I see videos from America, where the dogs go to ‘play with other dogs’ and the owners just stand/sit by.
      Better to use a long lead and walk your dog through a public park. I made a nice long lead for my ‘escape of I can’ dog out of a length of cotton sash cord. So she can trot or dawdle at her own speed and stop to investigate things she find interesting. With my other dogs the lead is ONLY to comply with regulations, and I often drop the lead or loop it over their backs (sort-of like a harness), because they do walk with me anyway.

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      • When I lived with my parents, we did not have a fenced yard, but we lived in a farming community so it is rural there. When I got my dog, I just reinforced she needed to stay close by. She doesn’t run off, in fact she has a pretty good recall. We later got a dog for my mom. At first she had to stay on a long leash because she would run off, but we worked with her alot and with my dog and she now has a decent recall. A great deal of the rescues in the area I am from require fenced yards and I really think that requirement makes them miss out on some really great homes.

        I currently live in an apartment. My dog gets to play frisbee in a small, fenced in park the apartment complex has provided for dog exercise a few times a week (I try to get her out there 3-4 times a week) and she also gets walked a few times a week around the complex. Alot of people here walk their dogs a great deal more than where I used to live. Dogs that live in apartments can live great lives…in fact my pup gets out more than when we lived in a rural area.

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  3. Truly enjoyed your post. We certainly do need more parks and public areas where dogs are welcome on the paths and trails in an inclusive way.

    There are some lovely areas near where I live where dogs are banned entirely and the “dog areas” (I don’t mean official dog parks) are those marginal pieces of land that nobody wants. Usually a swamp in wet weather or a barren dust bowl in dry. Uninviting for both dogs and guardians. It is getting difficult to find places to take a dog (on leash) to properly socialize them and get them accustomed to meeting people and other events that make them canine good citizens. Home Depot used to allow you to take your dog in. A single event caused them to ban all dogs. (They don’t get any of my business anymore.)

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  4. Gosh. We’d go crazy without a good walk every day. It’s worth noting that “dog park” means different things in different places. Our local “dog park” is 100 acres of forest, grass, trails, and lakes. All off leash, and multi use (cyclists, runners etc). While some people stand around chatting near the cafe, mostly people walk and run with their dogs. And dogs are well socialised because it’s a park in dense inner city Sydney where dogs live cheek to jowl. But it’s big enough dogs are not crammed together like sardines. That’s the ideal model. We still prefer a big forest out in the country, but it’s a good second best.

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  5. Reblogged this on peakmemory and commented:
    “For trainers, veterinarians, behaviorists and other dog professionals, the take away from this research is that we should encourage our clients to walk with their dogs, not only for the many benefits that the dogs will enjoy, but to take advantage of the health benefits for themselves. “

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  6. Pingback: #DogActivity A Walk in the Park (or not) | Mode...

  7. I used to love to walk my dogs, but my present dog has been attacked three times by loose dogs, twice while walking on leash with me and once in our own front yard. Dogs cross their invisible fences, which are often right up at the sidewalk, and are exercised off leash in parks that require leashes. I now take only short walks where I know the dogs we’ll be passing are friendly or adequately contained.

    I love having a fenced yard and don’t see it as a poop place. I can play and practice dog sports with my dog without concern for his safety. Just last week, a large loose dog was circling my yard while we played, and I was very glad to have the physical barrier.

    BTW, love your blog, and own Dog Food Logic. Keep writing!

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  8. Hi! Would love to get some information on exercise, particularly as it relates to large breed puppies. I was advised that pups should be walked no more than 5 minutes for every month of their age, twice per day, and that activity should be supplemented with training and activities to puzzle through to keep her mind going.
    Where I am interested in additional information is on the 5 minutes per month rule, and whether extra exercise (consistently or the odd exception) does cause joint damage, and how to ramp up exercise effectively as the pup transitions to being an adult. (I’m an active person – would love my pup to be too, but I also want to avoid problems later on).
    Many thanks!
    Wendy

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  9. I thought I would be running with my dog… She is too fearful/reactive. At first I ran around the block with her twice a day, but the behaviorist wanted her to be sheltered from our busy neighborhood until we got meds balanced for her to learn. Two years later… 😦 but it is spring and I’m determined to walk her farther. You should see her tail droop when we get past our own block. … so sad…. Small steps! (so to speak)

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