New Book! “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog”

Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog” (paperback version) is now available! Click on the image below for more information and to order. (Kindle version will be available soon!)

Book description:  In her second Science Dog book, Linda Case tackles commonly held beliefs about canine nutrition, pet foods, behavior, social cognition and training. Each of the book’s 32 chapters explores a current issue that is of interest to dog owners and pet professionals and presents the scientific evidence that supports or refutes commonly held claims and beliefs. Learn about pet food ingredients and research showing that what is on the label may not always be in the food, about measures of food quality (and what consumers may not know about the foods that they buy), and about the safety and digestibility of popular dog treats and chews. Other chapters review new information regarding how dogs communicate, factors that help or inhibit a dog’s ability to learn, and the effectiveness of different types of training. Find out if dogs are capable of “knowing what someone else knows”, if they feel empathy for their friends, if they bark for no reason, and if they are capable of feeling guilt following a misdeed. Learn more about breed stereotyping, factors that influence our perceptions of dogs, and which canine characteristics most influence our attraction to particular dogs. This newest Science Dog book has something for everyone who works with and trains dogs, as well as for those who simply love dogs and enjoy learning more about our canine best friends.

                                                                             ♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥♥

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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).

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Dog Park People

Dog Parks are a relatively new cultural phenomenon, and have increased in both number and popularity over the last 15 years. It is an understatement to say that people are rather polarized in their views of dog parks. Advocates maintain that these designated areas provide invaluable opportunities for dogs to enjoy off-lead exercise, socialization and play with other dogs, and for owners to meet and befriend like-minded people in their communities.
Dog Park Comic 2

HOW ADVOCATES VIEW DOG PARKS

At the other end of the spectrum, critics argue that off-lead dog areas are often poorly managed and supervised and present unacceptable risks to dogs. These risks include aggressive (or predatory) attacks,  physical injuries caused by large groups of dogs running together, and the transmission of parasites and disease.

Dog Park Comic

HOW OPPONENTS VIEW DOG PARKS 

Full disclosure: I should admit at the forefront that I am personally not a fan of dog parks. My reasons include all of the aforementioned plus the fact that I genuinely just prefer to go walking or running alone with my dogs. However, a fair number of our training school clients frequent dog parks because they provide an opportunity for off-lead exercise and play with other dogs. While it is not for me, I have respected their choice and have provided students with the usual set of precautions that have hopefully kept their dogs safe.

The Study:  A recently published study focused not on the dogs who visit dog parks, but rather upon the people who give them the ride there – their owners (1). Patrick Jackson, a sociologist at Sonoma State University in California, was interested in the emerging social norms and group dynamics of people who gathered regularly at a community dog park with their dogs.Dog Park People

DOG PARK PEOPLE

Study methods:  The author used an ethnographic method of data collection, an approach that is commonly used by sociologists when studying complex interactions among people. Over a period of 15 months, Jackson visited a local community dog park with his two dogs. They visited the park between three and five times per week and at various times during the day. He collected data that included owner and dog demographics, the activity patterns and spatial distributions of people and dogs, visit durations, topics of conversation among owners, the frequency and type of conflict between dogs, and the approaches used by owners to resolve problems. Data were recorded during visits and immediately afterward and behaviors and interactions were coded according to emergent themes and patterns.

Results: A number of owner behaviors and interaction types were found to be consistent from day-to-day and  appeared to represent the social norms of the dog park that was studied:

  • Public Demonstration of Owner-dog connection: Dog park visitors frequently (and often repeatedly during a visit) demonstrated their attachment to their dog through active play with the dog, offering (and often receiving in return) friendly eye contact, and speaking to (and for) their dog. This public display of connection appears to be an important component of dog park culture as it allows all visitors to place each dog with his/her owner.
  • Types of Problems: Four major types of problems were regularly observed. These included: mobbing/aggression at the gated entry into the park; mounting behaviors; aggressive behavior (attacks and fights); and feces clean-up issues. Behavior problems that dogs showed that were considered annoying but not necessarily in need of intervention included jumping on people, urinating on the benches, and excessive attention-seeking behaviors toward people other than the owner.

greetingdogs5    mounting                              MOBBING                                                            MOUNTING        

dog park aggression    Dog Defecation Posture                       AGGRESSION                                                          CLEAN-UP

Owner Roles in Problem Management: Jackson identified a set of approaches that the park attendees regularly used to avoid or respond to problems in the park. These were summarized as:

  • Avoidance: This occurred when people witnessed a commotion such as a dog fight or a dog being mobbed by several dogs at the gate. Others in the park would simply “steer clear” of the area and would not get involved.
  • Leaving the area or the park: This tactic was observed both by people whose dogs had been attacked or were being repeatedly mounted by another dog (see below) as well as by owners whose dogs were the misbehaving party. Owners of dogs who had been attacked or bullied typically left angry and upset. Owners of dogs who had misbehaved often moved to another area of the park or “left early”.
  • Humor and Baby Talk: Humor was reported to occur most frequently when one dog was mounting another. Sex jokes were apparently popular (ick). Humor was also used at the expense of owners whose dogs were being mounted by another dog (and were trying to stop it) or were upset about the behavior of other dogs or owners. Finally, some owners would use remedial (baby) talk to their dogs to ostensibly chastise them for their bouts of misbehavior while doing nothing to actually stop or prevent the behavior or to help the targeted victim………

OKAY. That’s it. I’ve had enough. I can take no more of this paper.

soapbox

I started writing this essay with every intention of focusing on the topic of the paper – the behavior and social interactions of people who visit a dog park with their dogs. And, admittedly, the paper does present some interesting themes and observations about emerging social norms of the dog park. However…….as I read and then reread this paper, it was impossible to ignore its complete exclusion of any mention whatsoever of the potential or actual harm that came to many of the dogs whose stories were being told. Many were situations in which a dog was being emotionally harmed and possibly physically injured. Here are  four examples that the author reports:

  • Immediately after entering the park, a dog stares down and then chases another dog, holding his head over the retreating dog’s shoulder and snarling. The dog then switches to another dog, continuing this behavior. (Owner: Does nothing. Other owners: Watch and say/do nothing).
  • A black Labrador mounts another dog and will not stop. The targeted dog’s owner repeatedly attempts to get the Lab off of her dog, to no avail. Four people standing nearby watch this and laugh. The dog’s owner finally succeeds in removing the Lab from her dog. Upset and angry, she leaves the park. The observing owners joke about the incident.
  • An older dog is attacked by a young dog. The fight is prolonged and the owners have difficulty breaking the two dogs apart. Following the attack, the young dog’s owner said to his dog: “Bad dog; lie down, sit down. We are going home early because of you.”
  • A dog’s ear was bitten off (yes, her EAR) by another dog. The author states that this problem was “resolved” because the attacking dog’s owner offered to pay the veterinary bill. This incident is reported in a section describing ways in which owners “over-react” to problems.

Rather than provide needed research about developing cultural norms of dog parks, this study ultimately confirmed for me that:

  1. Dog parks are not safe for dogs.
  2. Dog park people frequently behave badly by not being responsible dog owners and by being inconsiderate and uncaring towards other people and their dogs.

Granted, this ethnographic study examined the cultural milieu of a single dog park. Certainly dog parks vary in size, type of rules, participant behavior, and numerous other factors. And of course, more research is needed. However, until a study comes along that convinces me otherwise, I will continue to hike and run with my dogs for exercise and companionship, and to provide play times for them with doggie friends who they know well (and whose owners I know and trust as responsible and caring dog people).

I am also going to modify my advice to my training school clients. For those who tell us that they visit dog parks, I will advise them to stop going and to seek less risky (and more dog- and people-friendly) ways to exercise and socialize their dogs.

Walking with dogs in a group

Take your dog walking with your friends and their dogs.

Be your dog’s best friend and his protector.

‘Nuff Said. Off of Soapbox.

 Reference: Jackson P. Situated activities in a dog park: Identity and conflict in human-animal space. Society and Animals 2012; 20:254-272.