Dog walking is an activity that is very much a part of contemporary culture. In Ireland, 34% of households own dogs (this compares with 24% in the UK, 38% in the USA and 39% in Australia). Dog ownership has become a key part of twenty first century life. And if you have a dog, part of the responsibility of ownership is a commitment to taking the animal for a walk.
It didn't used to be like this: a generation ago, dogs in Ireland used to take themselves for walks. There wasn't so much traffic, and dogs spent their time idling around the garden, with the gate left open. If their owner went to the shops, they might follow them, or if the dog felt like going for a wander to see the neighbours, that was fine too. Perhaps in some relatively sparsely populated parts of Ireland, dogs still live this types of unfettered existence.
However, as the world has become busier and more congested, it is no longer tenable to allow dogs to live their own independent way like this. It has become dangerous to allow dogs to roam freely, with the risk of road traffic accidents, bite injuries to passers-by, and other hazards. The laws of the land have changed, and people are held accountable for the actions of their dogs. So if your dog roams and causes problems, you will have to carry the responsibility and pay any costs associated with damage. It's now widely accepted that dogs need to be kept enclosed, and only allowed out under the direct supervision of their owner: to use the legal terminology, an owner must have "effectual control" of their dog. At the same time, it's recognised that dogs have a biological need to have exercise every day, and that they need to be taken for a walk to be able to enjoy this.
These types of changes have happened across the world, and it has gradually become universally accepted in wealthy countries that if you own a dog, you are obliged to fulfil their physical and behavioural needs for regular exercise by taking them for walks.
Indeed, dog walking is now recognised as one of the key benefits of dog ownership: dogs encourage their owners to undertake regular physical activity, and this is one of the factors which contributes to the improved health of dog owners compared to the non-dog owning segment of the population. Many people enjoy walking their dogs: it's a social activity, promoting companionship and a good relationship with the animal, as well as enabling fellowship with other humans. If you are in a park, walking with your dog, you are far more likely to stop to have a conversation with someone else if you are both dog owners. The animals act as social facilitators, breaking the ice and acting as conversation starters. The simple fact that you are with a dog makes you more approachable.
Dog walking has recently attracted the attention of social researchers. A recent scientific paper on the topic identified that there are two different types of dog walking: functional and recreational. Most dog owners will immediately identify these variations when they reflect on their own experience of walking their dogs.
Functional dog walks are those that are undertaken for the simple purpose of meeting the practical needs of the dog to take exercise (and often to carry out their necessary bodily functions, since many dogs don't like doing this in their immediate home territory). Dog owners tend to go on these functional walks quickly and efficiently, allowing them to tick the 'dog has been walked' box in their minds, and removing a sense of guilt that they would otherwise feel. These walks can feel like a chore, being seen as part of a contractual obligation to the dog. They tend to be undertaken close to home, on streets or in local parks.
The second type is the recreational dog walk: this goes beyond fulfilling the basic needs of the dog, and is as much for the owners as for the animals. These walks are more likely to be taken when the owner has a significant amount of free time, such as after work in the evenings, or at the weekend. Recreational walks are more likely to involve several members of the household as well as the dog, and are often a significant part of the weekly social calendar. They tend to be in more scenic surroundings, they last for longer, and they are more weather-dependent. Typically, a family might go out for the day, driving into the countryside, going for a walk lasting for several hours. The dogs go too, loving the adventure and the exercise, but the walk is not being undertaken primarily for their sake. This is the ideal type of walk: everybody enjoys the activity, and it brings health and social benefits to all.
In reality, many dog walks fall in between these two definitions. I know many people who love taking their daily functional walks with their dogs, and I know people who feel that there is a strong "functional" aspect to their weekend long dog walks.
What can we learn from this research? My sense is that our society should aim to create a dog-walking-friendly environment close to all of our homes so that we can transform functional walks, as much as possible, into recreational walks. If dog owners can take their dogs for enjoyable walks close to their own homes, they'll do it more often. More exercise for more people, and for more dogs, can only be a good thing.