Studying the benefits of walking man's best friend

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 August, 2010, 12:00am

For one week last month, Nathan Leung Siu-kin wore a pager-sized motion sensor around his waist from morning to night. The device measured the amount of energy in calories Leung was burning each day. He wasn't doing this to check his overall fitness level - he was participating in a study on the health benefits of dog walking.

'I needed to wear the device for seven days, except when I took a bath, or when I went to bed,' Leung says. 'I wouldn't say it bothered me; after a while I didn't feel like I was wearing it. The only thing I needed to remember was to mark down the time when I took the dogs out for a walk.'

When it was time to take his two medium-sized dogs, Bobo and B, for a walk, Leung also had to wear a GPS device, which measured the distance he walked with the dogs. Leung was taking part in a study being conducted by philosophy student Joyce Chow Lok-yan at the University of Hong Kong. The study started in February and, so far, Chow has recruited 30 dog owners to take part.

Chow initially sought people who were about to become dog owners for the study.

These volunteers were instructed to wear the motion sensor device for three separate week-long periods: one week before getting a dog, then at the second and eighth week after owning one. Chow wanted to study how owning a dog changed an owner's physical activity level.

Chow's hypothesis is that dog owners will be more physically active than those who don't own one.

While it may seem obvious that people who walk dogs are likely to be more physically active than those who don't, Chow says many Hongkongers are not aware of the benefits. 'Some people, like me, don't have a dog but like to walk. However, most people in Hong Kong ... don't have the time to walk a dog.'

Results from Chow's study could be used to help push for places to walk dogs in the city and encourage residents to adopt an animal.

Before being given the monitoring device, volunteers must complete a questionnaire, in which they are asked about their level of physical activity; the amount of green areas near their home; whether there are any impediments to them walking their dog; and how they feel when doing so.

'I'm interested in the public health issue, whether people benefit from daily walking and if owning a dog encourages them to walk,' Chow says. 'I also wanted to see the impact of dog walking on their lives. Some owners go hiking with their dogs, which not only increases physical activity but improves quality of life.'

Chow's study also focuses on the mental and social benefits of dog ownership, which include socialising with other owners and feeling less depressed due to the presence of a dog.

'When I walk my dog, I occasionally meet people living in my village. It makes my life more interesting,' Leung says. 'When I walk my dogs, I have the time to think of different things - my life and my career. When I'm at home with my family, sometimes I can't focus on these things. When I'm walking my dogs, I have the space to think about more serious matters.'

Chow says studies on the benefits of dog ownership have been carried out in Britain, the United States and Australia, but not in Asia. 'This study can be quite meaningful. We can see how dog ownership affects people,' she says. 'If the study proves owning a dog helps your health, hopefully fewer dogs will be abandoned and more dogs at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals will find a home.'

Chow is looking for at least 100 volunteers, who will be paid HK$200-HK$300 to participate in her study on the benefits of owning a dog. If you would like to volunteer for the study, please contact Chow at joycecly@hku.hk, or visit http://dogwalk.hku.hk for more information.

 

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