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Health & Fitness Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, February 11, 2010

The science of dog walking

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

Snowing and blowing, hot and humid — no matter the weather, Karleen Hayden takes her beagle mix, Jelly, for a walk every day.

“You don’t want to disappoint the dog,” she says. “She needs to use her nose and get her exercise.”

Sometimes, during a cold winter like this one, Hayden will look out the window of her rural home and think, “I don’t want to go out there.” Then she looks at her dog, gets the 12-foot lunge line she uses for her Welsh pony, and heads out for an adventure. “Once I get out, I have fun,” she says with a laugh.

Hayden, who was raised in Vermont, grew up with dogs. Her family, living in town, kept beagles and hounds for hunting. She spent weekends with her grandparents in the country and would take their dogs through the woods and meadows. “Every dog they had slept in bed with me,” she said.

Retired from teaching, Hayden has kept dogs throughout her adult life and raised her three daughters to love them. Now, at 57, Hayden is devoted to Jelly.

Jelly “was terrified of everything” when she was adopted from the animal shelter, says Hayden. “When I said, ‘Sit,’ she dropped to the floor in abject fear.” Using the same clicker training she uses for her pony and donkey, Hayden broke down the desired behavior into parts, rewarding each step with a click and a treat. Jelly can now sit as well as shake paws.

On their long walks, Hayden clicks with her tongue. “I always have my tongue with me,” she explains. But she doesn’t keep Jelly on a tight leash; she lets her follow her nose.

“She usually wants to run for the first half-mile,” says Hayden. “She’s at the end of the line, moving and sniffing…We crash through the brush…I’m willing to go bushwhacking because that’s what beagles are supposed to do,” she said.

The occasional tear to her clothing doesn’t bother her, and her neighbors are fine with her rambles through their property. Hayden finds something close to spiritual in the long walks with her dog. “If you’re with people, they tend to talk. And people complain,” she said. “If you’re with your dog, you see the wildlife. You’re in touch with nature. It’s very calming.”

She is pleased with the way her dog, which she guesses is 5 or 6, has progressed. “I’m just so proud of Jelly,” said Hayden. “She’s blossomed into this lovely creature. She came here obese with a skin condition. She peed on the floor; not anymore. Now she’s trim and fit and her coat just shines.”

Hayden is in glowing good health as well. Her cardiologist complimented her on her performance on the treadmill and asked what her exercise routine was. She told him, “I walk and run behind my beagle for 45 minutes to an hour every day.” He was amused.

Global consensus

But the sort of exercise that Hayden gets is of interest to scientists.

Dog walking is a hot topic for researchers around the world, according to Rebecca A. Johnson, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction, which collaborates between the Missouri University College of Veterinary Medicine and the Missouri-Columbia Sinclair School of Nursing.

“There’s a whole body of research,” she said. “It’s a rapidly growing phenomenon because of the obesity epidemic.”

Johnson shared a variety of research papers, published in the last decade in industrialized countries.

A 2006 study conducted in Japan at Gunma University found that walking a dog has potentially greater health benefits as a buffer against stress in the elderly than walking without a dog and, independent of walking, merely patting and talking to a dog raises parasympathetic neural activity.

Another 2006 study — this one at the University of Victoria, in British Columbia, Canada — found that those who owned a dog participated in more mild to moderate physical activity than those who did not and concluded, “Acquiring a dog should be explored as an intervention to get people more physically active.”

Likewise, a 10-month study in Cambridge, England found that pet owners had fewer health problems and dog owners took considerable more physical exercise walking their dogs than cat owners or people who didn’t own pets.

A United States study, published in 2006 by The American Geriatrics Society, stretched over three years to look at over 2,000 elderly adults in Memphis, Tenn. and Pittsburgh, Pa. The study, with Roland J. Thorpe Jr. as its first author, found that, of the 394 dog owners, only 36 percent walked their dogs at least three times a week. Dog walkers were faster and were more likely to achieve 150 minutes of walking each week than non-dog walkers; they had better health and better mobility. Three years later, those who had been dog walkers at the start were twice as likely to achieve recommended walking levels.

A 2007 study at The University of Western Australia stated that physical inactivity is associated with lifestyle chronic disease such as Type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and mental illness. “New approaches to increasing population levels of physical activity are needed. One such potential under-utilized resource lies patiently, wagging its tail in eagerness to be physically active,” says the paper by Hayley Cutt, Billie Giles-Corti, and Mathew Knuiman.

In the United States and Australia, the paper says, 37 percent of households own at least one dog and dog owners walk more and are more likely than non-owners to achieve the recommended 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week recommended by the United States Department of Health and Human Services.

In another paper, the same authors, joined by Valerie Burke, point out that human societies have kept dogs as pets for over 14,000 years, and they say pets are often trusted companions, providing some owners with a sense of purpose since the pet is dependent on their care and protection.

The paper points to a growing body of evidence that pet owners experience improved physical, mental, and emotional health.

Citing references for each assertion, the Australian authors continue, “Pet owners appear to have lower systolic blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels…better survival rates after a heart attack…lower levels of mental stress…lower feelings of loneliness and depression…and higher self-esteem.”

They also say that, compared to people who don’t own pets, pet owners are more likely to participate in community events and to exchange favors between neighbors. The paper goes on to point out that zoning and land-use legislation can facilitate more walkable neighborhoods, conducive to dog walking, supporting increased physical activity.

“I can do more”

Johnson, a nursing professor with a Ph. D. in gerontology, founded the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction in 2005. “Our goal,” she said, “is to conduct a series of studies to demonstrate the benefits of humans and animals interacting.”

Johnson herself is a dog walker. She owns two dogs — McKenzie, a four-year-old Gordon setter, and Madison, a 12-year-old English setter. Her household also includes a Maine coon cat named Bently.

One study by the center focused on dwellers in a public housing project who were not regular walkers. They were loaned dogs and started walking them 10 minutes a day for three walks each week. They worked up to walking 20 minutes each day for five times each week. Those who stayed with the program for 50 weeks lost an average of 14 pounds.

Even those who only stayed with it for half the program were walking more and walking for everyday errands, Johnson said. Many of the walkers said they stuck with it, not so much because of their health, but because it was good for the animals and they enjoyed walking with them.

The center also is involved in a program, called “Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound,” featuring Saturday community dog walks for adults and for families with children. They walk shelter dogs and can enroll in a study of their weight, blood pressure, mood, and physical activity patterns before and after participating in the program.

“People who come to the shelter on Saturday to walk a dog then go on to increase their physical activity outside of the program,” Johnson said. “They say, ‘I walked a dog a mile. I can do more.’”

Canine companions better than humans

Johnson said that she is particularly interested in projects to help older people remain physically capable so they can continue to live in the community.

Her most recent study concluded that canine companions kept the elderly walking better than human companions.

“The rising rate of obesity in older adults is linked with the national problem of limited physical activity, resulting in chronic illness,” says the introduction to the report.

For the 12-week study, three groups of residents in assisted living facilities were monitored.  Fifty-four adults, ranging in age from 67 to 97 with a mean age of 85, participated. Twenty-three of them had human walking companions, like a friend or spouse. Twelve of them walked with a dog from a local shelter. And 19 of them made up the control group.

Those in the dog walking group were brought by bus to the shelter and walked there 30 to 60 minutes, depending on the heat, for five days a week, Johnson said.

Those with human companions walked on marked trails near their residences, and, said Johnson, “The control group was left alone; they did their own thing.”

At the end of the 12 weeks, walking speed for those with human companions had increased 4 percent, and for the control group had increased 6 percent — both statistically insignificant, Johnson said. But for those who walked dogs, their speed had increased 28 percent.

“Both ends of the leash”

Those in the dog-walking group immediately expressed an affinity for the shelter dogs, the report says, and their walking ability improved significantly. Johnson said that, by the end of the study, some off those who began with walkers or canes no longer needed them. They said that their balance and walking confidence had improved.

While Johnson said she had expected walking speed and balance to improve for those who walked the dogs regularly, she was surprised at the excuses those in the group with human companions made. “We heard people dissuading their partners from walking,” she said. “They’d say, ‘It’s hot today. You don’t want to walk do you?’ or they’d say, “I have a doctor’s appointment in the afternoon,’” and, Johnson pointed out, the walking was done in the morning.

In contrast, she said, “The group with the dogs came bounding off the bus, saying, ‘Where’s my doggie?’ They were vigorous and enthusiastic,” she said; the hot weather wasn’t a cause of complaint. And, they repeatedly thanked the researchers for the program, the report says, making comments such as, “It gets me out,” or “is helping me to feel more confident,” or “is fun.”

Asked if people owning dogs, rather than walking shelter dogs, would be more apt to feel a sense of responsibility towards walking their pets, Johnson said, to the contrary, “We’ve found people are very dedicated to helping animals…Older adults are the biggest volunteer group in the history of the United States. They are very kind and very motivated to help.”

Johnson stressed, too, how the participants in the public-housing study were motivated “because the dogs needed them.”

She went on about the importance of dogs in motivating people to exercise. “If treadmills really worked,” said Johnson, “we wouldn’t have the obesity epidemic.”

She said of people who walk dogs as opposed to exercising without one, “They get unconditional love and positive reinforcement in return. An animal is thrilled to death to see you and always ready to walk….

“People commit to an animal when they own it, but it’s not required.” she said of ownership. “There are animals all across the country in shelters through no fault of their own…There are benefits at both ends of the leash.”

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