As soon as Connor sees the trees of Gorge Park, he pulls at the leash wrapped around the gloved right hand of Clarise Lim.
It’s a hardy pull, as the four-year-old pit bull rescue dog is about 70 pounds of friendly, bouncing fun.
The two make the trek through Gorge Park often, as Connor regularly joins Lim on her 10-kilometre runs. Connor likely doesn’t realize he’s the inspiration for Lim’s ongoing research that examines the relationship between dog walking behaviours and an owners’ sense of responsibility and attachment.
Lim, a graduate student in kinesiology working in UVic’s Behavioural Medicine Lab, has already published a study on the matter.
“Some of the benefits you can’t even measure, such as the behaviour effect that exercise brings to dogs,” Lim said. “Some of the benefits it brings people are also hard to measure.”
Lim has worked as a fitness instructor for 17 years and is passionate about expanding the quality and quantity of exercise people get.
She decided to throw a bone into exercise research by studying human and canine participants after people commended her for running with her dog, which she initially didn’t see as anything special. Lim and Connor used to run as much as 21 kilometres before a back injury slowed Lim down. She’s healthy now, but commends the level of physical and emotional health she had going into the injury as a major factor in recovery.
“It’s beyond physical, I had to deal with my father passing too, and I think there was an added emotional level of health (from exercising with Connor) that helped me deal with the stress of losing a family member,” Lim said.
Some of the findings in Lim’s study, based on 228 dog owners, aren’t surprising. Dog owners who value and enjoy dog-walking engaged in more of it, and larger and higher energy dogs resulted in higher levels of walking.
Some is intriguing, however. There are dog owners who walk the dog out of guilt, which could add stress into the human-dog relationship, where usually it’s the opposite.
Most of all, there is a shocking number of Canadian dog owners who rarely, if ever, will take the animal for a walk.
“Worldwide the ratio of dog owners who do not engage in regular exercise with their dogs is about 50 per cent, and we find that is relative in most Canadian cities (including Greater Victoria),” she said.
At the heart of the study is a motivation to see if dogs can help people reach the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum of 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week.
Sixty per cent of participants Lim surveyed walk their dogs at intensities and amounts sufficient to reap health benefits for themselves, her study says. It’s a number that 85 per cent of Canadian adults don’t reach. Hence, Lim is studying the effectiveness of using a dog as a catalyst.
With the first round of research complete Lim is on to a second stage, seeking volunteer dog owners who aren’t currently meeting recommended physical activity guidelines, to participate in a nine-week study starting this month.
“Not everyone has to run with their dog, there are lots of activities,” Lim said. Hiking, swimming and ball throwing at the park can all lead to added exercise.
A side goal of the study is to encourage any amount of exercise for those who aren’t getting any. But Lim does have a key piece of encouragement she shares to those who are successfully exercising with their dog, and that is not to fall into a routine.
“Your body will adjust to a certain level of fitness and plateau, so you need to get to the next level, out of your comfort zone, to get the greater benefits,” Lim said.
The next phase of Lim’s study will investigate the use of behavioural and self-regulation strategies such as making plans, using cues to form habits, and attending scheduled group walks, to achieve positive physical activity outcomes.
Dog owners interested in participating can contact Lim at firstname.lastname@example.org.