Dogs love “walkies”. And unless it’s pouring with rain and blowing a gale, so do their owners. But there’s much more to this daily routine than you might think. In fact, it’s actually a complex process of negotiation, which reveals a great deal about our relationship with man’s best friend.
In many ways, the walk reflects the historical social order of human domination and animal submission. But research suggests that it also allows humans and dogs to negotiate their power within the relationship. In fact, our recent study found that the daily dog walk involves complex negotiation at almost every stage.
The UK, like many countries, is a nation of pet lovers – 40% of UK households are home to a domestic animal. And for dog owners (24% of UK households) that means a lot of walking. Dog “owners” walk 23,739 miles during an average dog’s lifetime of 12.8 years and reportedly get more exercise from walking their dogs than the average gym goer. Despite this, we actually know very little about how walking and the spaces in which we walk help forge our relationships with dogs.
The wonder of walking
Walking is necessarily a mode of transport for getting to school or work, but it is far more than movement alone – it’s not “just” walking. Walking with a dog is beneficial for mental and physical well-being, but the process of walking with an animal also involves detailed interactions. Dogs, like other animals, are sentient beings that think, feel and have their own personalities – and we need to “listen” to and negotiate with them about how the walk is experienced. The walk is a shared experience, after all.
While clearly acknowledging the health benefits, humans also walk their dogs because they take great pleasure in seeing their dogs have fun. Indeed, our study showed that there is a widespread belief among dog walkers that dogs are happiest when out in the open, and it is here that they are able to best demonstrate their “doggyness”. (It is important to note here that while not all dog owners walk their dogs, our participants shared an enthusiasm for getting out and about with their pets.)
But dog owners also adapt the timing, length and location of the walks depending on the perceived personality of the dog and what they think the dogs like and dislike the most. One respondent felt that as her dog had been rescued she had a “right” to a good life and giving her a long walk daily was part of this care-giving. There was also the sense that people knew where their dogs liked to walk and walkers spoke of “their stomping ground” and “favourite park”, suggesting that over time, dogs and their companions find spaces that work for them as a partnership or team.
But there are other factors at play, too – not least, how the owner’s own feelings influence the walk. For example, we found that some walkers – especially those with larger breeds – experience anxiety in certain situations, such as encounters with small children, and that these anxieties influence walking patterns.