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Understanding the psychology of walkers with dogs: new approaches to better management

Research output: Working paper

Dog walking is a popular activity; it is reported that approximately one third of all visitors to the countryside are accompanied by a dog (Countryside Agency, 2006). Dog ownership encourages people to exercise, and walking can lead to physical, social and psychological benefits (Data Monitor Report, 2004; Podbersek, Paul, & Serpell, 2000), yet there can be a down side to this. For example, dogs can disrupt people walking without dogs, disturb wildlife, and foul in public areas. Countryside recreational research has tended to observe and report the behaviour of people walking with dogs (in the present research referred to as ‘dog walkers’), rather than exploring the antecedents of their actions. The present research aims to: (i) examine the attitudes and beliefs of dog walkers that might influence their behaviour; (ii) identify psychological principles that can influence how people think and behave; and (iii) apply these findings to develop recommendations for land management practice that might optimise the benefits and minimise the costs of people walking dogs in the countryside. A consortium, comprising Hampshire County Council, The Kennel Club and the Countryside Agency, appointed the University of Portsmouth to conduct the present research. The Theory of Planned Behaviour (Ajzen, 1991) was used as a conceptual framework in order to explore why people might behave in certain ways. Data was collected from dog walkers who participated in focus group meetings, where they were encouraged to rationalise their attitudes toward dogs and their behaviour when walking with dogs. A group of site managers also met to discuss dog walkers who visit their sites. Preliminary analysis of data identified commonalities and variance in the attitudes and beliefs of dog walkers that informed the development of a number of management measures. These measures incorporated psychological principles that can influence attitudes and behaviour, and were tested out during two subsequent focus group discussions. Data analysis revealed that how dog walkers behave is influenced by attitudes and beliefs relating to their relationships with: (i) their dogs; (ii) those with whom they share dog-walking locations; and (iii) land management officials. The first of these relationships, between dog walker and dog, is one of great importance to dog walkers and a major influence on their behaviour. Associated with physical, psychological and social benefits, the intensity of this relationship impacts on how dog walkers interact with and relate to their dogs, people and the environment. The preferences and needs of dogs influence where people choose to walk; favourite sites are those where dogs are perceived as most happy - where they are permitted to run off lead, where they can socialise with other dogs, where there is little danger of road traffic. In terms of the relationship between dog walkers and those with whom they share dog walking locations, participants reported choosing to walk where they anticipated meeting other dog walkers, because they believed that their dog enjoyed socialising with other dogs. Such environments also provided social opportunities for the walkers themselves to interact with each other - this was perceived as a further benefit of walking a dog. Dog walkers tended to see themselves as members of a group with shared attitudes and norms, and meeting others when out walking provided a sense of safety within this group that was not experienced when walking in more remote areas. As a group, dog walkers reported occasional conflict with other people such as walkers without dogs, cyclists and joggers. There was some ill feeling toward these other groups that were perceived as at times inconsiderate toward dogs and dog walkers. As a consequence, dog walkers often avoid locations where they are likely to meet people without dogs, and avoid also particular sites at particular times when they are most likely to be visited by such people. Relationships between dog walkers and land management officials were mixed. Dog walkers presented positive attitudes toward site staff but were less so toward more senior officials whom they perceived as often ‘anti-dog’. Site managers discussed the negative impact of dogs on their sites (mainly fouling and control issues that affect people, wildlife and livestock), whilst also referring to positive oneto- one communications between themselves and dog walkers. Also acknowledged were the positive aspects of people walking with dogs on their sites; described as unofficial wardens of the countryside, dog walkers were reported to pick up litter and report problems that may not otherwise be identified. Findings from this project have led to a recommended package of management measures that can convey a positive approach to dog walkers and enhance the enjoyment of alking with a dog in the countryside. This positive approach recognises the relationship between dogs and their walkers and the impact this has on dog walking behaviour. Measures acknowledge the potential of dog walkers as a group to promote norms regarding acceptable and unacceptable behaviours, whilst also recognising the need to bring a range of groups (e.g., walkers, cyclists, joggers) together within a forum where needs and opinions can be shared. Methods to enable communication between dog walkers and land management officials are also recommended. Specifically, it is advised that policy and practice: (i) open the lines of communication with the dog walking community; (ii) provide clear and consistent messages that communicate how people (dog walkers and other visitors to the countryside) are expected to behave; (iii) encourage dog walkers to take responsibility for their dog’s behaviour and promote desired dog walking behaviours within the dog walking community; and (iv) enable dog walkers to feel valued and welcomed at sites via the provision of measures such as dog-related facilities, products and events. The benefits of such an approach may include increased respect for others (other people, dogs, wildlife, livestock, and so on), harmony between different communities visiting the countryside, a cleaner environment, happy customers, and happy dogs. It is hoped that the recommendations contained in this report will be implemented in pilot schemes and that findings will inform future land management that will be both efficient and effective.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationPortsmouth
PublisherUniversity of Portsmouth
Number of pages50
Publication statusPublished - 2006

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