Low levels of physical activity are associated with health issues such as obesity, chronic diseases [1
] and poor mental health [2
]. Social systems are also important for human health and wellbeing [3
]. Walking with a dog is the most common reason for visits to natural environments in England [4
] and dog walking is a recognised potential mechanism for increasing physical activity [5
], social interaction [7
] and social capital [9
]. Lack of exercise is also associated with obesity in dogs [10
], providing dual benefits of dog walking for human and animal welfare. At the population level, dog owners are more physically active than people without dogs [11
]. Dogs are a unique motivator for sustained physical activity despite psychological and practical barriers such as bad weather [12
]. However, the distinctive nature of walking with a dog is poorly understood [14
An owner briskly walking their dog for at least 30 min each day easily exceeds the 150 min recommended as minimum duration of moderate physical activity per week [1
]. If all dog owners did this it would dramatically boost population levels of physical activity. For promotion of dog walking to be an effective intervention to improve owner health it is essential to understand what motivates dog owners to do it, as not everyone walks with their dog regularly [11
]. This knowledge may also enlighten other successful ways to promote exercise.
Animals are becoming recognised as legitimate subjects of sociological enquiry [15
]. Questionnaire survey data suggests that the strength of the dog-owner relationship has both a strong association with dog walking behaviour and a large effect size [16
], and has been attributed to concepts such as: attachment [17
]; social support [19
]; motivation [19
]; obligation [20
]; encouragement [21
]; and “knowing dog enjoys going for a walk” [19
]. These constructs have been shown to be primary factors associated with dog walking behaviour, but it remains unclear how these factors operate.
Motivation for dog walking has been framed almost exclusively in terms of the needs of the dog [23
]. Elderly people participating in a loaned dog walking programme reported that the dogs “need us to walk them” [24
] and most dog owners report that exercising their dog regularly is good for the animal’s health [25
]. Pilot intervention studies targeting the canine need for exercise, rather than the human’s, have had some success in increasing owner activity [26
]. However, a recent study suggests that intrinsic motivators (e.g., finding an activity pleasurable) seem to be more important with regard to dog walking than extrinsic motivators (for the purpose of a reward outside the activity itself, such as reducing feelings of guilt) [14
]. The perceived energy level of the dog [14
], size [14
], and breed [27
] are also considerations.
The way in which interactions between humans and dogs affect motivation to walk are complex and hitherto little researched or understood [14
]. Qualitative research methods designed to understand social phenomena, and how people make sense of their social world [28
], are ideal for studying this complexity. This study was designed to explore the perceptions, interpretations and experiences of different dog owners regarding owning and walking their dog(s), using interviews and observations. In particular, we wanted to understand how people conceptualise dog walking, what motivates and de-motivates them, and how these beliefs and perceptions influence dog walking behaviour. The findings elucidate how social relationships, including non-human, can influence human health behaviour.
2. Materials and Methods
In-depth semi-structured interviews (see end of manuscript for interview schedule (Appendix A
)) were conducted with members of 12 dog owning households. Households were located mainly in the North-West UK and were recruited through advertisements on social media, in shops and community centres, and through word-of-mouth. Applicants were purposefully sampled in order to include regular and infrequent dog walkers, families with children, and a variety of dog types. Interviews (approx. 2 h) were conducted in the owner’s home. In addition, the researcher accompanied participants on a “typical” dog walk if the dog was walked.
In addition, 14 short interviews (10–20 min) were conducted: ten were of dog owners walking their dogs in one of two Liverpool parks; and four at a dog show with owners of large breeds associated with high levels of exercise (Foxhound and Old English Sheepdog) and low levels of exercise (Afghan Hound and Pyrenean Mountain Dog) [27
In total 38 people were interviewed (excluding very young children, See Table 1
). All interviews were conducted by the first author, except four short interviews of owners walking their dogs, which were conducted by the second author. Data were supplemented by autoethnography of the first author’s dog walking experiences which were recorded and reflected on over a two year period.
Participant interviews (including conversations that took place on the walks) were recorded and transcribed. A grounded theory approach was used, based on the idea that “knowledge” is constructed and embedded in human perception and social experience and that issues are individually experienced and rooted within agreed social norms or standards [29
]. True to a grounded theory perspective, an inductive approach was used, drawing on wider theories as deemed appropriate for the themes that emerge from the data, rather than pre-defining a theoretical perspective. Data collection and analysis overlapped where practically possible. Primary line-by-line open coding of transcripts and diaries was conducted by Carri Westgarth assisted by Elizabeth Perkins, and axial and selective coding emerged collaboratively during discussions. Coding was managed in NVIVO software (QSR International, London, UK). As the data were coded, similarities and differences across the data were explored until theoretical saturation in emergent categories was reached. Regular discussions with the other authors assisted in critical analysis. The use of the primary author’s own dog walking experiences required a critical reflexive approach in which the emerging data provoked and challenged thoughts and feelings about dog walking and led to some of the most critical insights in the study. The study was conducted in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki, and the protocol was approved by the University of Liverpool Veterinary Ethics Committee (Project code VREC121). Formal interview participants provided full informed written consent. Participants interviewed at the park and dog show provided audio recorded verbal consent after receiving an explanation about the purpose of the study. All interview participants were provided with a written information sheet with contact details should they wish to contact the researchers for any reason. Names of people and dogs have been changed to maximise anonymity [30
This paper has provided a detailed understanding of why dog ownership can be such a strong motivator for sustained physical activity. The primary reported motivation for dog walking was the perception of the dog’s need for exercise. In contrast, however, the primary valued outcome was that of increasing owner’s mental wellbeing through providing a pleasurable and stress-relieving experience. Human physical activity, although beneficial, was a secondary outcome. Perceived responsibility to walk a dog depended primarily on the perceived needs of the individual dog at that time (what was “best for the dog”), but also the perceived needs of the owner and the owner’s ability to meet the dog’s needs within the compromise. Personal views of what a dog owner is expected to do with regards to walking their dog provide a framework in which decisions are made and which vary depending on the owner’s social circles and historical and personal contexts.
Social support from an important “other” can have positive effects on motivation for physical activity, for example family and friends [38
]. This study elucidates how this can also happen with a pet dog, and why they are particularly motivating. The dog-owner relationship underpins our findings and elucidates why constructs relating to this have previously been found to be strongly associated with dog walking [16
]. Similar to findings by Sanders, pet dogs were viewed as conscious beings and able to communicate intentions and emotions; owners routinely used their day-to-day experiences with their pet dogs in order to understand them as socially defined “persons” [41
]. Our participants agree with the argument that animals can experience happiness [42
] and that we, as humans in close relationships with companion animals, are able to perform an interpretation of animal behaviour in a similar manner to that we would do with other humans [43
]. We find that motivation for dog walking is provided through the significant other who is not only sharing the pleasurable experience, but is fundamental to producing it. The dog in dog walking is central to making us happy; the benefits of dog walking are not just from being in nature or being a conduit to exercise.
Drawing on theoretical and practical evidence regarding other human relationships may be helpful in exploring how owners described a sense of responsibility towards their dogs. Rather than there being hard and fast rules about how we “ought” to behave in regard to obligations towards our kin, we use normative guidelines to engage in a process of actively working out what to do in that particular context [44
]. Likewise, here we have discovered a number of considerations to be made when an owner negotiates their responsibility to walk their dog, but no clear rules as to what they must eventually do. These socially constructed guidelines appear to be well recognised (and also echoed in other studies e.g., [45
]), however, each owner may come to a different conclusion as to what the final action should be, and this will vary across contexts and dogs. Thus, in practice, the frequency and intensity with which people exercise their dogs varies widely.
Interestingly we did not note gender differences as observed with obligations regarding human kin relationships [46
]. This requires further exploration, however, we may tentatively hypothesise that gender differences in how care is given may be attenuated in this context, as dogs may be seen as a legitimate vehicles for males to show affectionate care-giving behaviour; it is still “manly” to walk and show affection to one’s dog. This is supported by a study that showed no differences in attachment, play behaviours or physical comfort given to dogs by male or female owners [47
To most participants, walks were a general principle to be followed, however others used other forms of dog “exercise” legitimately. This has implications for motivating owner physical activity: (i) some will not be motivated by efforts to make them walk if they can justify other forms of exercise for the dog; and (ii) the human “exercise” motivated could be not just walks, but games for the human to play with their dog. This has been a missed opportunity so far in intervention strategies (although was promoted with children in [48
]). Participants also suggested more education around dog needs was required if dog walking was to be promoted, however, nobody reported perceiving that dogs did not need walking; increased knowledge does not make people’s behaviour change [49
Sharing key rituals with animals is interesting given the view of shared rituals as a source of social cohesion [41
]. Strengthening of the dog-human bond through routines may explain why a dog is considered such a unique source of social support for walking. The role for routines and habit development in interventions to promote dog walking requires testing [5
], in particular as our findings show how dog behaviour through “pestering” and excitement can be integral to motivation. Even if we accept that some dogs have personalities and energy levels more conducive to this effect (perhaps to be carefully targeted upon dog acquisition), there is also scope for modification of individual behaviour through simple training techniques using positive reinforcement.
This study also supports the notion that intrinsic motivation is paramount in dog walking [14
]. Interventions could target the perception of dog happiness and wellbeing through dog walking, and thus owner happiness. In particular, these need to be directed towards older, smaller, or perceived “lazier” breeds of dogs, for which explicit motivation through the dog’s direct behaviour is likely to be minimal, and socially constructed barriers around perception of their need for walks require addressing.
Our study may explain why pilot dog walking interventions have not been particularly successful, for example using canine health messaging [26
] or social networking [50
]. Regarding the latter, social interaction is not an important motivator for dog walking. Owners are constantly negotiating and renegotiating their responsibilities towards walking their dogs based on complex constructed needs of both themselves and another (their dog) at that point in time, and interventions may not translate into behaviour change as readily as one might hope. Owners are torn between responsibilities not only to their dog but to their other family members, friends and work, among others. Despite a logical health benefit for both themselves and their dog, it may not make sense within their own lives to adopt a new strategy. Any proposed interventions to increase dog walking must be sympathetic to this and take a holistic approach, so that if one reason for not walking with the dog is addressed, it is not simply replaced with another. For this reason, multi-level interventions addressing a variety of factors conducive to dog walking are likely to be the most successful [5
]. As suggested above, these could include: routine and habit development, including training dog behaviours which support this; promotion of mental health benefits and “shared happiness” for both owners and dogs; expanding other ways to “enjoy exercise” together, such as training tricks and playing games; addressing perceptions about exercise needs of smaller “less active” breeds; and overcoming perceived human health barriers both at an individual level and through the provision of improved local environments in terms of physical accessibility for dog walking.
This study has a number of strengths compared to previous research, which often used focus groups [45
], small sample sizes [23
], convenience samples [30
], predominantly female subjects [30
], only one individual from each study household [23
], and only people who already walked their dog regularly [30
]. Data was also obtained during a dog walk with the participants, as opposed to just talking about these walks [33
]. Thus, we feel that it is the most in-depth study of dog owner’s beliefs and perceptions relating to dog walking to date, and this is reflected in the complexity and novelty of our findings. In line with best practice in qualitative research, the robustness of the study findings were maximised by the critical reflexive approach used, collaborative discussions, a rigorous process of coding and collecting the data in line with the constant comparative method, and triangulation of sources (interview, observation and autoethnographical diaries). Further, the use of purposeful sampling techniques and the reaching of data saturation lend further credibility to our findings.
The study has a small number of limitations. As with all studies, the sample comprised people who were willing to participate and in this case involved people who were willing to talk about their dog walking activities. Although some of the participants reported rarely walking them, it is possible that a larger sample would reveal an even greater variation in dog walking than that elicited in this study. However, even participants who walked their dog regularly could describe instances where they chose not to. Notwithstanding the small sample size, participants in this study identified complex and hugely varying patterns in their attitudes to and practice of dog walking. Data collection was carried out primarily in the North-West UK with mainly white ethnicities. It would be valuable to conduct studies with greater ethnic and cultural diversity in different geographical contexts. However, the agreement with research from other countries leads us to believe that it is a representation of at least the lives of some typical pet dog owners. In addition, future studies might also explore the role of exercise in dogs kept for a more utilitarian purpose such as dog racing, shepherding, guarding, and so on. The cultural and domestic context within which this study took place may also limit the transferability of these findings to dog owners in other countries, in particular, in countries where pet owners have access to large back yards such as in parts of the US and Australia.