Better Health Through the ‘Lassie Effect’

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Researchers commonly use the term the “Lassie effect” to describe the wide-ranging health benefits of walking a dog. The name refers to the television collie that nobly saved Timmy’s and so many other people’s lives week after week on her popular show.

But even though walking the dog can have lifesaving health benefits for owners and pets, a surprisingly large number of dog owners rarely, if ever, walk or otherwise exercise their dogs, research shows. Scientists who had studied the Lassie effect remained puzzled about why someone would forgo an activity that is good for them, potentially imperiling the well-being of both owner and pet.

But a new study provides clues about why people do or do not walk their dogs. The findings may help researchers promote activities and initiatives that increase dog walking and spread the Lassie effect.

For many of us who own dogs, the idea of not walking with them can seem anathema. They are such reliable and insistent training partners. Undeterred by sleet, heat, wind, cold or work deadlines, they wag their tails and drool when we pull out our sneakers and do not mind (indeed prefer) that our shorts come from the dirty-laundry pile rather than a drawer. They motivate many of us to exercise when we might otherwise choose to remain still.

The health impacts of this exercise can be considerable. Recent studies have found that people who own and walk a dog are much more likely than other people to meet the standard recommendation of 150 minutes of exercise per week. Dog walkers also have lower risks for high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, arthritis and other common medical conditions.

Ditto for their dogs, which are less prone to rotundity or illness than dogs that are rarely exercised (although evidence indicates that, as with people, dogs that need to lose weight must cut calories from their diets; exercise alone will not slim most dogs).

Dogs and people that walk together also are believed to develop deeper emotional bonds than do owners and pets that do not.

But despite these benefits, as many as 40 percent of dog owners in the United States and elsewhere rarely if ever walk their dogs, according to recent estimates.

That statistic worried Carri Westgarth, a research fellow in public health at the University of Liverpool in England, who led the new study. She recently began a program in Liverpool to encourage physical activity through dog walking. But such efforts would not be sustainable, she thought, unless scientists understood and responded to the obstacles to dog walking.

So for the new study, which was published recently in BMC Public Health, she and her colleagues turned to a large existing database of information about the health and lifestyles of almost 2,000 adults living in Perth, Australia (where one of the study authors resides). The participants had completed multiple questionnaires, including about pets and the household’s physical activities.

The researchers zeroed in on answers related to dogs and walking and what it was about the dogs, their owners or their neighborhood that contributed to the walking.

And what they found was that smaller dogs, those weighing less than about 30 pounds, were much less likely to be walked than larger animals. Older and overweight dogs also rarely were exercised.

But even large, healthy dogs were unlikely to be walked if the owners did not believe that walking dogs was healthful or that their dog liked to walk. Dogs were also less likely to be walked if there were few parks nearby. Many people also did not walk their dogs if there was a child in the household who could be handed the task.

Interestingly, one of the prime determinants of regular dog walks was affection. People who reported feeling close to their pet generally walked it more often than those who reported a looser bond.

In aggregate, Dr. Westgarth said, these replies suggest that some pet owners see little upside to dog walking and are happy to skip or abdicate the task.

Many also may underestimate the needs and abilities of their pet. “It’s a myth that small dogs don’t need walks every day,” she said. Her own tiny Chihuahua/pug mix, one of three dogs she owns, has reached the top of the 3,500-foot peak of Mount Snowdon in Wales, she said.

Aging and overweight dogs also can and generally should be walked, she said, assuming that you have clearance from your veterinarian. Reintroduce out-of-shape dogs to physical activity gradually and do not ignore limitations. One of Dr. Westgarth’s dogs, a 14-year-old spaniel mix, strolls more slowly than her younger, friskier dogs, she said, so she takes it on alternate days. But she still takes it.

The rewards can be ineffable. A dog on a walk explores, finding pleasure in moving, sniffing, prancing and sharing your company, Dr. Westgarth said. This is not exercise; it is joy and can be contagious.

“People who walk their dogs often say they do it for the dog,” she said. “But there is also an element of what we get out of it in terms of enjoyment, which is the big motivator.”