Spending time outside in nature can be an enriching and joyful experience for many people.
With lockdown restrictions limiting the amount of indoor socialising that people can do, learning to appreciate the benefits of spending time outdoors has become more important.
Heading out for regular walks with our dogs provides great physical and mental health benefits; it's been shown to ease feelings of loneliness, anxiety, depression and stress. Understanding the health benefits of a good dog walk can help us appreciate how much our pets mean to us.
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Functional and recreational dog walking
Studies by scientists and researchers increasingly recognise the value of the relationship between dogs and their owners.
Dr Carri Westgarth, a senior lecturer in human-animal interaction at the University of Liverpool, has conducted extensive research into the positive effects of dog walking on the health and wellbeing of both owners and dogs.
She identified two distinct types of dog walking. Functional walks involve making sure our dogs get their daily exercise and are about meeting the needs of the dog.
Research has shown that many dog owners admit to not walking their dogs as often or as long as they should. Dr Westgarth argues that functional walks are carried out because owners know their dogs need outdoor exercise but this can sometimes create a feeling of guilt, and aren't always viewed as fun for owners.
In contrast, recreational walks cater for both the needs of the dog and its owner. These type of walks are usually longer, take place during at weekends and in less urban settings. Recreational walks were seen by dog owners as more enjoyable for them and their dogs.
Dog walking reduces loneliness
Walking with your dog is a social activity and leads to people spending more time outdoors in their community. Dogs are social animals and enjoy meeting other dogs and new people.
Being out and about with a pet often leads to meeting follow dog owners and these interactions can have a positive effect on people suffering feelings of isolation or loneliness.
Improving mental health
Thinking about the type of dog walks we have is likely to have a more positive effect on the health and wellbeing of ourselves and our dogs.
Dogs that don’t have enough walks can easily become bored and unhappy. It can lead to poor physical health like obesity and also mental health issues such as behavioural problems.
Making dog walks less functional and more interesting and recreational where possible is important. Dogs get mental stimulation through sniffing and exploring their environment, which makes a nice change from playing with a ball or toy when out walking. Sniffing and exploring helps them relax when they return home and can prevent behavioural problems.
And dog owners are likely to be happier if they think they’re making their four-legged friend happy.
Studies have shown that when dogs and humans interact in a positive way (for example, stroking and hugging) both exhibit a surge in the hormone Oxytocin. Sometimes referred to as the 'love hormone' Oxytocin has been linked to positive emotional states.
Caring for a living being and receiving unconditional affection is great for a person’s self-esteem. It’s why creating an emotional bond with our dogs during a walk can be so important in tackling mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression and stress.
Regular dog walking creates a structured routine, alongside feeding and playing with your dog. If you're experiencing low moods or suffering more severe forms of mental illness, taking care of your dog can help focus your mind and provide the feeling of satisfaction that comes from looking after them.
Nature and mental health
Going for any type of walk means getting outdoors and experiencing some of the natural world. Recreational dog walks usually involve a walk in a park, garden or woodland.
All of this helps our mental wellbeing and people who walk with their dogs regularly say that time in green spaces is a great way to deal with stress and anxiety.
Sadly, not everyone can escape to the great outdoors for dog walks or live near the countryside. But dog owners in more urban environments can use their walks to explore new parks in their towns and cities.
Our dog walks should be a chance to relax, switch off and engage with our dogs but this isn’t always the case. Too often, we're distracted by our mobile phones or intrusive thoughts and it can be difficult to unwind and lift our mood.
Adopting a more mindful approach is one way of improving your dog walking experience. Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years, but in simple terms it involves purposely focusing your attention on the present moment.
You can become more mindful by focussing on your dog and the experience of your walk together, by paying more attention to the sights, smells and sounds around you.
It means limiting any distractions. If you normally bring a toy with you on dog walks, leave it at home; let your dog have the chance to explore and sniff out their environment. And as daunting as it may sound, you can leave your mobile phone at home as well. If we’re always looking at our phones, we’re not engaging with our dogs or the outside world.
Lasting dog walking happiness
Dog walking can play an important role in helping people cope with mental health issues. And it's clear the type of walk and how people engage with their dog has a big influence on health and wellbeing.
It can be a challenge to switch off from the pressures of everyday life that can impact negatively on our mental health – but dog walking provides many people with the chance to do so.
Dog walking is fulfilling, so if you've finished reading it's time to pick up the lead and head outside.