The Happiness Reports
Everyone talks about how they enjoy a dog walk, but did you ever think about how a dog walk can be therapeutic for people with long-term health problems and can actually make them happier?
Some researchers in New Zealand asked this very question. How does the dog walk contribute to the health and wellbeing of adults living with long-term health conditions? And their research has just been published.
With some help from volunteers and their dogs, the researchers were able to find out more about the dog walks of people with a whole range of serious long-term health conditions. And they discovered that there were four important themes to the experience – the special relationship that people had with their dogs, the motivation to go for a walk despite pain or other obstacles (out of an obligation of love for the dog), social isolation from health concerns and the connections that were possible through dog walking, and the combination of experiences and environment for health and well-being (which they called the dog-walking recipe). Altogether these things become the “therapeutic space” of dog walking.
There’s a lot of research of the benefits of dog walking for physical activity, stress, social connections, and so on, but what was really interesting about this study was that it was looking at dog-walking and community. It was looking at how a person connects to others and enhances their wellbeing through walking the dog. And as we saw in Must Love Dogs, community is the foundation of joy and happiness. So how does a dog walk enhance happiness?
There have been studies looking at the way pets improve the wellbeing of people with particular health conditions. Research has looked at the importance of pet ownership for stroke survivors. And studies have described the importance of dog walking and the way it gives routine and structure to HIV patients. But what is really interesting about this study is that they looked across a range of conditions so that it wasn’t about the dog and a specific health problem. It was about dogs and community for people left more socially vulnerable through their health condition, whatever that might be.
Poor health can leave people disconnected from friends, family, and society as a whole, and we know that relationships, connection, and community are essential to happiness. The researchers found that the special relationship between human and dog helped people connect and preserve these relationships, by helping them to communicate. So the dogs are delivering the goods of happiness, and they are also helping their humans deliver the goods of giving to others, as well as looking after themselves through physical and mental activity. In fact, many of the people in the study said that it was much easier to talk to people when on a dog walk, than in other situations.
And they all described their wonderful and special relationships with their dogs. One human described how they’d had a fall in a particular spot a couple of years previously. And ever since that fall, their dog sits and waits there for a few seconds each time, checking things before moving on safely. The human described this as “moments that just catch you … I look at her eyes and almost don’t breathe.” And there were other stories of synchrony between dog and human, with dogs slowing to match their human’s pace, or pushing them to walk a little faster to help them increase their activity day by day. That relationship of cooperation, empathy, and connection between dog and human is a remarkable thing.
Dog walking also gave the humans shared experiences, and then they could also share other experiences, meaning that the community of the dog walk was a really important experience of bonding, belonging, and connection between humans. One human was recovering from a brain event and they explained how their oncologist said the routine of the dog walk was therapeutic, “making me more confident as a person.”
And a lot of participants described how together the dog walk distracted them from their condition. Whether it changed the way people looked at them, or how they looked at themselves, or how they balanced, or how they managed to communicate to people – dog walking changed everyone’s perspective.
And this is what the researchers called the Dog-walking Recipe for Health and Wellbeing. The dog walk brought “joy”, was “calming”, “uplifting”, and a “great de-stressor”. Some of the humans even described the way the dog walk reduced their symptoms.
The study referred to the five ways to wellbeing: connect, take notice, keep learning, and give. And the researchers said that dog walking has the potential to contribute to all of these. On a dog walk humans connect with dogs and other humans. Humans take notice of their dog, other dogs, people, and their environment on their walk. Humans keep learning on a dog walk – about their dog and their bond, about their route, about training, and a whole range of things. And above all, a dog walk is about giving.
Giving is of course one of the most important goods of happiness, and the researchers described the motivation to go for a walk, despite the pain or anxiety, as an act of giving that returned to the human a sense of wellbeing. And so the researchers highlighted the importance of volunteer dog walkers to assist people with long-term health conditions to keep walking their dogs. Charities like the Cinnamon Trust in the UK are therefore essential to maintain not only the exercise of a dog, but also the social networks and community for their human.
As the researchers note, there is so much research on the contribution of dog walking to community engagement, it is time that policy-makers and town planners take note, maintain more and better dog parks, and start helping people expand their dog walking experiences for the benefit of the whole community.
Build those dog parks. And bring the joy into the neighbourhood.
 “All Those Ingredients of the Walk”: The Therapeutic Spaces of Dog-walking for People with Long-Term Health Conditions, Catherine M Smith, Gareth J Treharne, Steve Tumilty, Anthrozoos, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 327-40. The research was carried out by the Centre for Health, Activity and Rehabilitation Research, School of Physiotherapy, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand and the Department of Psychology, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand.
 Health conditions amongst participants included: Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic low back pain, diabetes, asthma, sarcoidosis, stroke, traumatic brain injury, cauda equine lesion, cerebral autosomal dominant arteriopathy, osteoarthritis, anxiety and depression.