Helping Dogs and Their People Be More Active, Together!
Summary: Exercise is important for dogs and humans, but the research on this topic can be confusing and seem contradictory. This article reviews the benefits of physical activity for dogs and humans, gives an overview of some of the most common challenges to increasing activity levels, and suggests practical solutions to help empower clients to commit to being more active with their dog in a way that works for both of them.
Introduction: Physical activity is important, but missing from modern life
Physical activity—moving the body in a way that uses muscles and burns energy1 – is vitally important for dogs2 and their people.3 For pet dogs, these physical activity needs can be met in many ways: Walking and hiking with their owners, playing in the back yard, or a fun game of tug are just a few examples! For people, physical activity can be achieved through both structured exercise and less structured active pursuits such as leisurely biking, walking, playing, and hiking. Unfortunately, one-quarter of the world’s adult-age people (1.4 billion adults) aren’t getting the amount of physical activity they need to live long and healthy lives.1 While similar data does not currently exist for pet dogs, a rise in pet dog obesity.4 may indicate a lack of physical activity for them as well. The purpose of this review article is to 1) discuss the importance of physical activity for dogs and their people, 2) discuss potential barriers that keep owners from being physically active with their dogs, and 3) create some real-world solutions to help dogs and their owners be more active, together!
Importance of physical activity for dogs
Why is physical activity so important for dogs? Surprisingly, there are limited research studies demonstrating that the same exercise that‘s so beneficial to people also benefits companion dogs.5 The data that exist, however, are very promising! Exercise in pet dogs helps them to achieve a healthy weight and body condition score.6 Engaging in physical activity can also provide a pathway for pet dogs to engage in species-specific and breed-specific enrichment in nature—sniffing, running, pointing, and otherwise moving in their natural environment.7 Physical activity can also provide an appropriate energy outlet, helping promote wellbeing in pet dogs and potentially improving behaviors in the home environment.8 Unfortunately, today’s pet dogs may not be getting the amount of physical activity they need: 55.8% of pet dogs in the United States alone are currently obese,4 and data suggest that up to 50% of cats and dogs are obese worldwide.9
Importance of physical activity for people
Physical activity is as vital in promoting health and wellness for people as is it for their pet dogs. These benefits include prevention of chronic disease, enhanced mood, decreased depression and anxiety, and improved quality of life.3 Unfortunately, the majority of adults worldwide aren’t meeting their minimal physical activity needs. While adult humans need at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity OR 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic physical activity plus 2 days of muscle strengthening per week, the World Health Organization estimates that over 25% of the world’s adult population don’t meet these guidelines.1 This lack of physical activity is related to an increased incidence of heart disease, cancer, type II diabetes, and other health problems, along with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, and a decreased quality of life.10 And as with pet dogs, we see high rates of obesity in people: 52% of the world’s adult population are currently living with being overweight or obese.11 If we’re able to increase the level of physical activity of pets and their people, we’ll potentially be able to help pet owners be happier and healthier, and have more physical and psychological reserves when living with, playing with and training their dogs!
Does dog ownership increase physical activity?
It’s estimated that 470 million dogs worldwide are kept as pets,12 and we all know that sharing one’s life with a pet dog can be very rewarding! Pet dogs are often celebrated for the more obvious benefits to their humans—they help us learn to form healthy attachments, cheer us up when we’re down, and in general are just cute and fun! But the benefits of pet ownership extend beyond these wonderful “warm and fuzzy” characteristics—dogs impart physiological health benefits as well. Having a dog is associated with longer life and lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease: A systematic review and meta-analysis pooled over 3.8 million participants from 10 studies and showed that dog ownership was associated with a 24% risk reduction for all-cause mortality and a 31% risk reduction for cardiovascular mortality.13 Pet dogs can provide social support, decrease loneliness, and improve opportunities for socialization.14,15 Just 10 to 15 minutes of positive interaction with a dog can lead to improvements in mood and stress levels, and significant decreases in anxiety and blood pressure.16,17
A growing body of research shows that dog ownership can lead to increased physical activity in adults.18–22 Dog ownership increases physical activity, mainly through dog walking.21,22 Measuring physical activity in a residential neighborhood, researchers found that 23% of dog owners walked their dogs five times per week, while 22% never walked their dog; dog owners averaged 2.6 walks per week, and dog walkers were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines when compared to non-dog walkers.19 A study of three major United States cities and Perth, Australia, showed that dog owners walked their dogs five times per week, 90 to 109 minutes per week, and achieved ≥ 30 minutes per day more physical activity versus non-dog owners.18 And when adults without a dog get a dog, they increase their physical activity by over 30 minutes per week.20 Pet dogs also bring increased opportunities for outdoor activity.15 University students enrolled in a shelter dog-walking class were able to meet 40% of their recommended daily physical activity during class time,23 indicating that interactions with dogs have the potential to increase their physical activity levels of university students overall!
However, dog ownership does not always lead to increased physical activity, as we ourselves may have experienced as dog owners and/or dog behaviorists and trainers. These factors can be related to the dog or the human side of the physical activity equation. Dog walking decreases when a dog is fearful (of strangers, noise, and/or aversive stimuli, for example), aggressive, pulls on lead, barks excessively, escapes, or lacks obedience.24 Therefore, it may be that when dogs demonstrate behaviors that make taking them out for physical activity challenging or unsafe, their owners avoid it altogether for lack of better, safer options. Behavioral issues such as fearfulness/anxiety, reactivity, aggression, and others can turn an exciting outing in the wilderness into a scary and potentially dangerous time for them and their owners. Also, training challenges on the parts of both dog and owner—for example, pulling on lead and lack of a recall—also create barriers to humans sharing active time with their pet dogs. Dog owners may also miss out on physical activity with their dogs due to a lack of time, lack of access to appropriate environments, and having children and other family care responsibilities.25–27
How can we help dogs and their people be more active together?
So far, we’ve discussed how important physical activity is for both dogs and their owners, and how it can help both pet dogs and their people to live longer, happier, and healthier lives! We’ve also covered how missing out on that physical activity can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, cancer, obesity, and anxiety, to name a few. We’ve discussed that it’s not always just a question of telling pet dog owners to “take your dog for a walk” as the simple solution to these problems because, while dog ownership can lead to increased physical activity for many, issues on both ends of the leash can make this challenging and unrealistic advice! So, the question is: How can we help dogs and their people be more active together?
As a dog owner and a dog training and behavior enthusiast, I’ve found so many resources that can help! Here are some ideas:
Provide management and training help to dog owners
One way we can help dogs and their people be more active together is to teach strategies to manage and help with behavior issues that may occur when out in the real world!
There are many management games and exercises that pet dog owners can learn to help their dogs deal with the “real world,” helping them to ignore or pass by distractions! A wonderful example of these techniques can be found in Dr. Amy Cook’s online course, Management for Reactive Dogs, offered through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.
“Magnet Hand” is a wonderful management technique to help you and your dog move past a distracting dog, human, or other situation in the environment. Your dog learns to follow your hand, filled with food, right alongside your body. This skill is very useful in those situations where you need to move your dog past a situation that they might react to, and instead they stay happily focused with you! Watch Here: “Magnet Hand”
“Find It” is a super-fun and animated management game you play with your dog, to help keep their attention away from other things in their environment, like a passing dog or person. In this game, you play along with them, dropping treats for them to find and getting right down there with them to share the fun. Note: In this video, I’m using the verbal cue “Hoover.” Watch Here: “Find It”
Recall “party” on leash to help your dog bounce back to you when on leash and encountering a troublesome thing in the environment. This recall is special, because you use it when your dog is close to you already, and you really “throw a party” with them. Note: My dog Carey loves to find food on the ground, so the best party for him looks a lot like “Find It” or a food scatter. You can try different parties with your dog to determine the way they love to party! Watch Here: Recall (on-leash party!)
We can help pet dog owners learn to use equipment as a helper. When used and fitted correctly, a front-clip harness or head halter can help provide owners with a “safety net” for when their management and training needs a boost due to challenging environmental conditions. It’s vitally important that this equipment be introduced to one’s pet dog in a systematic, safe, and positive way. A wonderful way to achieve this can be to work with a dog trainer or behaviorist to do so. One example of this can be found in Chrissi Schranz’s online course, Out and About, offered through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. The purpose of this class is to help owners and their pet dogs enjoy time out in their environment together. I had the good fortune to work with Chrissi in this course, and we worked together to teach my dog Carey to be happy in his head halter.
Here is a video of our early steps: Head Halter – Early Steps https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RUOO1MDN2lc
And here we are a few weeks into our course, with Carey now practicing some of his normal activities outside while wearing his head halter! Head Halter Practice – Normal Life Activities
While management and training can go a long way to help dogs and their owners be more active together, some dogs have behavioral issues that need to be addressed with the help of a qualified professional animal behaviorist to help them live happy and active lives with their owners. Anxiety, reactivity, and aggression are complex issues that may mean that dog owners need to avoid the traditional “take your dog for a walk/hike/run” advice because those activities could increase stress, anxiety, and other challenges for the dog and owner team. Many excellent resources exist for helping owners with these issues, both through in-person behavior consultation and online behavior and training platforms.
Oftentimes, when we think of being outdoors and active with our dogs, we or our clients may believe that a long, strenuous hike or marathon play session in the park is needed. This belief can serve as a barrier for many people who aren’t physically able to complete that level of exertion with their dogs. Equally, their pet dogs may not be physically or behaviorally able to go for that long hike or play in the park for hours!
Let’s help pet dog owners (and ourselves) set reasonable and attainable goals for themselves and their dogs. A two-hour hike might be completely unrealistic (and is for many people!)—but can you and your dog get 30 minutes of active play in the back yard, or on a long line in a safe, open area? And if 30 minutes of active play may be unrealistic for some too, we can help them find 5 to 10 minutes to play active games with their dog a couple of times a day. And for dogs and people for whom that level of activity is too high, can their owners spend a few minutes with them on a calm sniffing walk in the front yard, back yard, or another quiet place outdoors? All of these activities will help your clients and you be more active with your dogs!
Explore the many pathways to physical activity with pet dogs
One amazing feature of living with a pet dog is that in helping them meet their needs for physical activity and time outdoors, we can also meet those needs for ourselves! Taking a walk in nature with one’s pet dog on a longer leash or long line allows the dog to sniff and engage with the environment, without their human companion feeling like they are starting and stopping all the time. Another wonderful way to get physical activity with one’s pet dog is to play active training games wherever there is space available—indoors or outdoors. Inside the home, one can play active training games—such as a moving recall (Backyard Playtime – Moving Recall). You can also play a little game of hide-and-seek, where you hide from your dog and then reward them for finding you with a treat, attention, a tossed toy—and then move away again. When outside, you can play “moving fetch,” where you toss a toy for your dog to retrieve, and then race them to the toy for fun! You can also practice your dog’s recall outdoors by tossing a treat down and moving away from them with some speed and activity. When they catch up to you, toss another treat down and move away from them again. These games are super-fun and both you and your dog will enjoy moving and learning together. Some pet dog owners may also enjoy active dog training pursuits with their dog. Training for dog sports like agility, tracking, mantrailing, and other active dog sports can help both owners and dogs be active together.
In our world today, physical activity is more important than ever, for us and our pet dogs. I hope that the science and suggestions shared in this article will inspire you to get active with your pet dog, and help your clients to do the same. Set reachable goals, embrace the many ways that we can be active with our pet dogs and most importantly, have fun being active together!
My sincerest thanks to Amy Cook, PhD, and Chrissi Schranz, two amazing dog behavior and training professionals who have helped me and my dog Carey become more comfortable, happy, and safe while adventuring together! The courses discussed in this article are from the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and I would also like to thank Denise Fenzi and Terri Martin for allowing me to include material about these courses in the above article. I am also very grateful to the Wingate University School of Sport Sciences, Brandy Clemmer, EdD, and Holly Griffin for supporting my participation in these training courses and my overall work to help dogs and their people be more active together!
Dr. Jenny Bond is a Professor in the School of Sport Sciences at Wingate University in Wingate, North Carolina. She LOVES being a mom, dogs, exercise and the outdoors! At Wingate University, you’ll find her teaching many different classes – Anatomy and Physiology, Anatomical Kinesiology, Exercise Prescription for Special Populations and more. She lives in the Charlotte, NC area with her awesome husband Nathan, amazing son and hiking buddy Zachary and a very big, very sweet Labrador named Carey. Her training journey with Carey inspired the writing of this article, as she learned to safely navigate spending time outside with a young child and a very enthusiastic Lab!
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