Want to Reduce Long-Term Stress in your Dog? Take a Walk!

Sometimes, people excuse the fact they don’t walk their dogs by saying the dog is small and/or gets enough exercise running around the house or the backyard.  But what if they’re not getting enough exercise?  Is it possible this lack of exercise is the reason for some of the “restless” behaviors observed in dogs; behaviors leading to the belief that the dog is very submissive, poorly socialized or expressing a kind of stress?
About 40% of dog owners seldom or never walk their dogs.  Studies done on the effects of this situation concentrated on the fact that dogs who were not regularly walked tended to be obese.  No mention is made about behavioral effects.
A research team at the Department of Neuroscience, University of Parma, Italy did a study looking at the long-term impact of an Italian animal welfare law passed in 1991, introducing a “no-kill” policy for dog shelters with incurable illness or having been proven to be dangerous as the only exceptions.  The research team was interested in the welfare of the dogs who were long-term residents in these kennels.  The study looked at the amount of long-term stress and tried to determine which living conditions might increase or decrease it.
The study subjects were 97 healthy mixed breed dogs between the ages of 2 and 7 years that had been living in the shelter for 2 to 3 years (dogs kept in a group living shelter were videotaped for later behavior scoring).  The researchers were looking for behaviors associated with high levels of stress, such as body shaking, muzzle licking, pacing in circles, licking or biting kennel cage bars, self-mutilation, etc., as well as low levels of stress consisting of tail wagging, seeking physical contact with other dogs and the like.  Blood samples were taken from each dog to analyze the concentration of the stress hormone cortisol and white blood cells or leukocytes, which indicates long-term stress and the body’s attempts to compensate for it.
The dogs whose blood samples indicated a higher level of antioxidant capacity showed fewer stress-related anxious and disturbed behaviors.  They were relaxed, showed a higher frequency of friendly, sociable, behavior toward other dogs.
Then the researchers looked at living conditions and personal characteristics of the dogs which best predicted lower stress levels, such as the sex of the dog, the size of the kennel cage, whether the dogs were neutered and a variety of other factors.  None of these had any significant effect on stress indicators in the blood except for one thing – whether the dog was taken out of its cage to go for a walk.  Dogs that were walked on a regular basis were less stressful and anxious, had fewer dysfunctional behaviors, and were more relaxed and comfortable.
This was not something the researchers intended to specifically focus on but because of this unanticipated result, there might be other factors that were not controlled for in advance such as the dogs getting high levels of human contact, socialization, and attention although internal data suggests this is less likely.  Because of this unexpected finding, other scientist are sure to develop a process to confirm whether walking a dog on a regular basis can have such a dramatic effect.
The message here…take your best friend on a stress-reducing, anxiety eliminating daily walk.  You’ll both be better for it.