We know that walking our dogs is good for them, but what about the benefits to us?
The share of households owning a pet in the UK remained relatively stable between 2011/12 and 2019/20, hovering around 45%. However, this changed significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw a rise to an unprecedented high of 59% in 2020/21. Between 2019/20 and 2020/21, the share of UK households owning a pet dog jumped from 23 percent to 33 percent. That is an estimated 12.5 million dogs living in our homes.
A 2020 survey asked dog owners to state their reasons for owning a dog and all linked their ownership to either improving their happiness and/or providing companionship.
Happiness was the most common response, with 51% stating ‘because they make me happy’; 47% said their dogs provided ‘love/affection’ and 35% stated their dog’s provided ‘companionship’.
This is probably not news to those of us who own dogs, but what does this actually mean for our health?
Increased Physical Fitness
The Health Survey for England 2019 estimates that 28.0% of adults in England are obese and a further 36.2% are overweight but not obese.
Many doctors will prescribe walking as way of losing weight through exercise, this is because it is a low-impact activity and therefore less likely to put strain on your joints. Over time it
will help to strengthen your muscles, bones and joints. But for many people having the motivation to get out and walk is difficult. That is until you add a dog into the mix! Most dogs love going for a walk and their enthusiasm and joy of being out and about is a large incentive for all of us – overweight or not – to get out with them and join in their enjoyment of the outside world.
Daily exercise not only helps keep our skeletal and muscular systems strong, but it will also help maintain our cardiovascular health. Regular exercise lowers blood pressure and resting heart rate, as well as the risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
Research has shown that dog owners walk for an average of 160 minutes a week. Other research indicates that people with dogs walk on average 30 minutes longer than their non-dog-owning colleagues. The evidence is inconclusive, but it has been suggested that compared to people who don’t own and walk dogs, dog walkers have a reduced risk of a high BMI (body mass index), diabetes and hypertension.
Public Health England recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week or just over 20 minutes of exercise per day. When you have a dog it is easy to meet and even exceed that recommendation.
“Compared to people who don’t own and walk dogs, dog walkers have a reduced risk of a high BMI (body mass index), diabetes and hypertension.”
Taking care of another living thing can make it easier to take care of yourself. Dogs know when it is time for their walk and their excitement and enthusiasm holds us to account. Just like other people who turn up for football practice or a run with a friend; we are committed no matter the outside conditions. Having a routine and responsibility gives people a purpose and helps to increase a sense of worth.
Exercise is believed to reduce stress by reducing levels of ‘stress-related’ hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. In addition, animal studies show that regular exercise may help to prevent stress occurring in the first place. When we exercise, our brain releases various chemicals which include endorphins and dopamine. Endorphins help to make us feel good by blocking pain and increasing sensations of pleasure; dopamine also plays an important role in how we feel pleasure as well as being responsible for other processes such as regulating heart rate, improving sleep quality, mood, attention, motivation, memory and learning.
So, what do our dogs add to this beneficial mix? There is a very good reason why service dogs help veterans and people living with PTSD (Post-traumatic stress disorder): walking a dog can improve mood and reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety, and research shows that spending time with a dog can reduce output of the stress hormone – cortisol. For people struggling with depression, having a dog can be a complete game-changer. It can be hard to motivate yourself to get out of the house if you are doing it by yourself. Physical fatigue is a symptom of depression which makes it challenging to exercise, even though regular exercise can be a powerful antidepressant.
Many of my clients say that they share in the simple happiness shown by their dogs as they enjoy running around and enjoying what nature offers them.
This sense of mindfulness and the social connection acquired by meeting other dog walkers helps to build a sense of belonging and wellbeing.
Dog owners are very used to seeing their dog sprawled out on the floor or curled up in their baskets particularly after a bout of exercise. While we may not need as much sleep as our dogs, adults do need between 7 – 9 hours of sleep a day. And the quality of that sleep is important. Exercise helps. Going for a good walk with a dog can help improve the quality of your sleep which has many physiological and psychological benefits.
Mud Glorius Mud
Dog walking is good for our children’s health as well! Researchers from Cincinnati College, USA have concluded that being brought up around dogs (and other animals) helps to reduce and even prevent autoimmune diseases and allergies. So, children who come from families with a history of allergies are less likely to develop eczema and asthma if they grow up with a pet dog. This is because of the so called ‘Hygiene Hypothesis’, which states that the more dirt children are exposed to, the less likely they are to suffer from autoimmune diseases and allergies in childhood. Considering that dogs are more often than not quite dirty (unless you wash them every day!) they are the perfect companion for children.
Walks provide our dogs with the same health and mental wellbeing benefits that we experience. It is obvious to all dog walkers and owners how much dogs enjoy exploring and experiencing the world around them and like us, when they are engaged in a task that they enjoy, they experience pleasure from the activity itself. This pleasure is mostly due to a release of dopamine. In dogs, this ‘seeking’ system is activated when engaged in behaviours they have been bred for, like scent work, herding, stalking, chasing or running.
Sadly, the ‘obesity epidemic affecting many humans is also prevalent in our four-legged companions. A study from the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) shows that 1 in 14 dogs are recorded by their vets as being overweight each year. In the UK alone, it’s estimated that 40% of dogs and 53% of cats are overweight or obese, and pet obesity is on the rise in the UK. 81% of vets and nurses report seeing an increase in the number of overweight animals. Sadly, the PDSA (People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals) 2018 animal well-being report showed that:
- 33% of dog owners walk their dog just once a day
- 45% of dogs are only getting up to 30 minutes of exercise when they are walked
- 1% of dogs are never walked at all
Recently I have met several clients who have had behaviour issues with their dogs. Their dogs have the run of their gardens – usually big gardens with plenty of grass, trees, and
shrubs to explore – and yet their dogs are fence-running, barking at people passing by, jumping up at guests to the house, stealing and chewing everything they can get their paws on and generally behaving inappropriately.
Having a big garden to sunbathe in, sniff around and watch the world going by is wonderful for dogs; however, it is no substitute for the mental and physical stimulation provided by a walk. When we take a dog for a walk he gets to sniff and explore lots of new scents left by other dogs and animals, he experiences a different and new environment which stimulates him mentally and physically leaving him tired and contented and less likely to get into mischief. Dogs that are unable to engage in natural behaviours, particularly that have a strong genetic basis, may well direct their drive into other behaviours that we may find undesirable.
There can be little doubt that going a for a walk with a dog not only has psychological and physiological benefits, but both species benefit from stronger joints, healthier cardiovascular systems, improved weight management and a sense of wellbeing.
Valerie is a Clinical Animal Behaviourist providing Behaviour Support and Training Services for dog and cat owners. She is also a certified dog behaviour consultant with the IAABC.
Based in Shropshire, near Bridgnorth she has large training facility, where she carries out behaviour consultations and dog training courses. She offers a specialised course called ‘Grumps and Growlers’ to help those owners whose dogs react negatively towards other dogs and humans.
For more information http://animalbehaviourbusiness.com