The present study provided some evidence that dog walking could be a promising strategy for promoting physical activity and controlling obesity. Dog walkers were more likely to meet national recommendations for MVPA (53%) when compared to dog owners who did not walk their dogs (33%) and to non-dog owners (46%). This finding is likely robust given that MVPA was assessed objectively with an accelerometer. In another potential health effect of dog walking, there were significantly fewer obese dog walkers (17%) when compared to both owners who did not walk their dogs (22%) and non-owners (28%).
The percent of minority participants was lowest among dog walkers, and people who owned a dog were more likely to be white than people who did not own a dog. This has been found in other research on dog ownership/walking (Thorpe et al., 2006a
). Dog owners had higher incomes than non-owners, but there was no income difference between owners who did or did not walk their dogs. The expense of owning a dog may prohibit low income and ethnic minority populations from benefiting from dog walking as a strategy to adopt a healthy lifestyle. To overcome this barrier, dog sharing programs could be implemented by humane societies and animal shelters in low-income neighborhoods. Low income and minority populations could volunteer to help these organizations by walking dogs but not have to incur the expenses associated with owning a dog.
Dog walkers were more likely to live in high-walkable neighborhoods when compared to dog owners who did not walk their dogs, independent of neighborhood or personal income. There may be several reasons for this finding. First, people are more likely to walk for transportation in high-walkable neighborhoods (Frank et al., 2006
; Heath et al., 2006
; Saelens et al., 2003
), so dog owners could walk their dogs while doing other errands. This would be an example of Morgan’s (2001)
purposeful physical activity model. Second, high-walkable neighborhoods usually have sidewalks and other pedestrian facilities, so dog owners may have stronger feelings of security and enjoyment while walking in high-walkable neighborhoods (Frumkin, 2003
). Third, dog owners in low-walkable neighborhoods are likely to live in single family homes with larger yards which provide a place for dogs to be active without needing to be walked (Frank & Engelke, 2003
; Saelens et al., 2003
). A recent study found that owning but not walking a dog was due to a variety of reasons including the ownership of small toy breeds, another family member being responsible for walking the dog, and a perception that their dog did not provide the motivation or the social support they needed to walk (Cutt, Giles-Corti, & Knuiman, 2007
). Fourth, there is evidence that, to some extent, people who enjoy walking self-select into more walkable neighborhoods (Frank et al., 2007
; Handy et al., 2006
). Similarly, it may be that dog owners who want or need to walk their dog would choose to live in a more walkable neighborhood.
Although the study was designed to produce a sample diverse in income and neighborhood walkability, the sample was primarily well-educated and white. Thus, findings may not apply to samples with other characteristics. An important limitation was the cross-sectional study design. It is not possible to determine whether living in a walkable neighborhood led to more people walking their dogs or whether dog walking is the cause of observed differences in physical activity and obesity rates among groups of dog owners/walkers. Conclusions regarding different rates of obesity for dog owners/walkers and dog owners/non-walkers should be treated with caution as the sample sizes for these groups of participants were very small relative to the overall sample size. Unfortunately no data were collected about whether a family dog was walked by another family member or other reasons why people did not walk their dogs. Finally, although height and weight were self-reported, it is unlikely that self-report error would differ between the groups of dog owners/walkers in the study. Similarly wearing an accelerometer may have influenced participants to engage in more physical activity, however it is unlikely that this effect would be different across the categories of dog ownership/walking.