This article appears in Pets 2018 magazine.
It seems obvious that most dog owners would enjoy going for a walk with their pets and that the shared activity is filled with health benefits. So why did a recent study find that almost 50 percent of pet owners do not regularly walk their dogs?
The study from the University of Liverpool examined the factors that motivated pet owners to walk their dogs. Two of the main findings were that pet owners are more motivated to walk larger dogs and are more motivated to walk if they believe they are walking to benefit their dog’s health.
Dog owners in general get more exercise than other people — on average 22 minutes more per day compared to people who don’t own dogs, according to research published in the journal BMC Public Health. That’s good for both dogs and their owners.
But, like us, dogs are increasingly not as active and their rates of obesity have risen, especially in the past 10 years, said Darryl L. Millis, professor of small animal clinical sciences and director of CARES Center for Veterinary Sports Medicine at the University of Tennessee.
“In some respects the dog population has followed the human population,” he said.
Health benefits for all
A recent study found that 60 percent of medium to large dogs suffer from osteoarthritis. Regular moderate walking helps dogs burn calories and build up muscle mass, which are both important for dogs with arthritis, Millis said.
“There’s a correlation between obesity and arthritis,” he said.
Dog owners who skip regularly exercising their pets are missing out on an opportunity, said Caitlin Ultimo, resident pet expert at online retailer Chewy.
“Walking your dog ensures you know how much exercise your dog is getting on a daily basis. Monitoring and encouraging your dog’s activity level is just as important as feeding them a proper diet and portion size when it comes to keeping your pup at a healthy weight,” Ultimo said.
“Dogs are built to run. Certain breeds need a lot of exercise,” Millis said. That includes bigger dogs like golden retrievers and black Labs, but also smaller ones such as fox terriers and miniature poodles.
In addition to the health and exercise benefits, walking with your pet provides psychological benefits, especially for seniors whose children have left the nest.
“Taking care of a pet is a great avenue for a person to become more social and fills the need to care for something or someone else,” Millis said.
How to start
Before starting an exercise program, be sure your dog is healthy enough with a vet evaluation. Start with shorter, more frequent walks and build up about 5 to 10 percent each week, Millis said.
“Add a little ball play, trotting or jogging,” he added.
Because it’s difficult for an owner to check a dog’s heart rate, watch out for signs of exhaustion such as panting or labored breath, Millis said.
Use your smartphone and fitness apps to set a goal and calculate steps, Ultimo said.
“Don’t look at walking your dog as a chore, but as an opportunity to treat your pet to new smells and sounds, as well as a little extra exercise, too,” she said.