Owning a dog and going on regular dog walks both have proven health benefits. But a small new study suggests that no matter how many times you hear that pounding the pavement with your pup is good exercise, that’s ultimately not what gets you (and your four-legged friend) up and moving.
According to research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, dog owners are motivated to walk their pets because it makes them happy—not for health or social reasons. Also up there on the list of reasons? They think it makes their dogs happy, too.
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The study analyzed interviews and personal written reflections from 26 people about why, exactly, they walk their dogs. While many owners said they do it to benefit their pooch, the researchers say the importance of the owners’ happiness and well-being was also clear.
But that happiness depends on the owner believing that the dog is enjoying the walk, the researchers noted in their paper. Motivation to walk was decreased when owners had reason to doubt this notion—like when they felt their dog was misbehaving, “lazy,” or “too old” to walk regularly.
The study mainly suggests that dog owners keep doing what they’re doing, since they can still rack up the health benefits of dog-walking even if that’s not the primary goal.
But it does make the case that health advocates might want to tweak their message when promoting dog-walking in order to appeal to more people. (Dog owners are generally more physically active than non-owners, the authors say, but some rarely walk their dogs at all.)
Lead author Carri Westgarth, a research fellow at the University of Liverpool in England, says she hopes these findings resonate with dog owners and animal lovers. “Dog walking can be really important for our mental health, and there is no joy like seeing your dog having a good time,” she says. “In this age of information and work overload, let’s thank our dogs for—in the main—being such a positive influence on our well-being.”
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She suggests dog walking might be even more beneficial for owners if they were to “leave the mobile and worries at home and try to focus on observing our dog and appreciating our surroundings.” Westgarth also recommends trying new or longer walking routes—or finding new ways to be active with your dog, like playing fetch or hide-and-seek with treats—when you’re feeling particularly stressed.
Taking on a dog is a big responsibility, but volunteering to walk someone else’s dog (or a shelter dog) can also be beneficial for people who don’t have the time or motivation to keep a furry companion. “In particular, older people can really benefit from the company of a dog and motivation to go for a short walk,” says Westgarth.
Westgarth also says she did a lot of self-analysis as part of her research, and she learned that it’s important for dog owners to be critical of themselves. “Ask yourself: Does your dog really ‘look tired’ that day or are you making excuses for yourself?” she says. “Just because your dog is small, would it really not be able to cope with an hour’s walk?”
Routines can work wonders, she adds, because humans and dogs both love them. “If you are struggling, set up a daily time for dog walking,” she says. “Your dog will thank you for it and you might actually enjoy it more than you think.”