A family's best friend

CHILDREN in households with dogs are more likely to get enough exercise compared to those without dogs, according to new research from the University of Western Australia.

The study, from the university's Centre for the Built Environment and Health at the school of population health, found ''children who had a dog were 49 per cent more likely to be sufficiently active [60 minutes of physical activity each day] compared with non dog owners.''

The take-home message is not, however, to rush out and get a hound if you don't already have one, says assistant professor Hayley Christian, who will be presenting the findings at Sports Medicine Australia's Be Active conference, in Sydney from October 31.

''The message is that if you have a dog and you walk it, it can make a great contribution to your overall physical activity and health and wellbeing,'' she says.

While up to 40 per cent of Australian households has a dog, only about half walk it regularly, so having a hound in the home is no guarantee of a more active life.

The broader aim of the UWA research - which has also looked into adults and dog ownership, with similar findings - is to uncover why it is so.

Christian acknowledges a vast range of factors play a part in the answer, from the dog's age, physical condition and social conduct to the owners' working hours, but a number of notable patterns have emerged from the data.

People's sense of duty towards their pets, for example, seems to be a key influence on dog walking. ''If you feel that you have an obligation to walk your dog then you are more likely to do so,'' she says.

That finding has led to another trial, the Pooches And Walking Study (PAWS), which is looking at whether a vet providing advice about an animal's exercise-needs during a consultation has a positive influence on how often the owner walks the dog.

''It's like your doctor urging you to look after yourself a bit better,'' Christian says.

PAWS is also looking to see if pedometer use is motivating - only it's the dogs and not the humans wearing the gadgets.

Research has shown that when people start wearing a pedometer they tend to walk more. Whether people will be as motivated by their dog's step count remains to be seen.

Another key influence on dog-walking was the owner's belief about whether or not having a dog would motivate them to exercise more. It seems to work rather like a self-fulfilling prophecy: people who think that having a dog will motivate them to walk more, tend to walk the dog more, Christian says. ''People who don't walk their dog do not think that their dog is there to provide motivation for them to walk.''

The third key influence was about the external world. ''Access to parks where you can walk the dog, clear signage about off-leash areas and dog access generally, and dog-litter bags and bins, those were important things.''

A surprise factor that has come out of the data about children in particular, says Christian, is that ''we are also seeing a relationship between dog ownership, dog walking and children's independent mobility [ie getting around their neighbourhood without adult supervision].''

''Kids who have a dog and walk it … are generally more independently mobile within their neighbourhood, which is important,'' she says. ''Kids who are independently mobile are better at problem-solving. They have usually got better self-esteem. They are more aware of their neighbourhood and able to negotiate traffic. Their coping and spatial skills are better.''

The UWA children's physical activity and dog ownership project relies on data from the West Australian TRavel Environment and Kids (TREK) project and is based on questionnaires completed by parents and children. The data analysis looked at 1218 children aged between 10 and 12.

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