What a dog walk can tell us about our human-animal relationships
If you have a dog, walking may be a vital part of your daily life. Perhaps you have a daily routine: same time, same place, every day. Or maybe you wake up each morning and ask your dog, “What’s your pleasure today?” Maybe you think of the dog walk as a necessary chore, maybe the dog walk is when you get your daily dose of exercise, or maybe you see a walk as sacred time you and your dog spend together each day, enjoying each other and enjoying nature. And just maybe there is far more going on with “dog walking” than snapping on a leash and heading out the door.
An interesting new study by Thomas Fletcher and Louise Platt, called “(Just) a walk with the dog? Animal geographies and negotiating walking spaces,” suggests just how complex an activity dog walking actually is. Walking, they say, is much more than just walking: It is “a highly sensual and complex activity.” Walking with dogs is “a potentially important cultural space for making sense of human-animal relations.” The personalities of both the dog walker and the dog are brought to play in a walk. The walk is both an expression of the human-animal bond and a key activity through which the bond is strengthened or potentially weakened.
In research bringing together the fields of walking studies and animal geographies, Fletcher and Platt help us see the ways in which dog walking “illuminates human-animal relations, animal agency and action.” (p. 3) How we view the walk may suggest to us certain things about how we perceive our relationship with our dogs. Who is the walk for? (is it our daily exercise? Or the dog’s?) What is the walk for? (is it to get somewhere? To be in nature? To let the dog experience “dogness” by running free, sniffing, etc.?) The walk becomes an arena where relations of power between dog and human companion are negotiated. As an example, they note that the tightness of a dog’s leash during a walk may tell us something about the human-dog relationship: a slack leash may indicate human and dog walking in harmony while a tight leash suggests conflicting “agencies”—that is, conflicting ideas about where the walk should go, how quickly dog and human should be moving, and who is leading the way.
For their research, Fletcher and Platt conducted in-depth interviews with people in Northern England who regularly walk dogs. Most of the dog walkers they interviewed felt a strong commitment to “listen” to their dogs, and thought that the walk was an opportunity to allow dogs a degree of agency and freedom. Dogs “are both agents and companions in the walk, not objects to be moved.” (3) The walk—including its timing, length, and location—were chosen based on what the respondents felt best suited the needs of the dog. Most of the respondents spoke of the walk as essential for their dog’s health and well-being, and believed that two walks a day of 30 minutes were sufficient. And although most respondents spoke of the walk as something they were obligated to provide as a part of responsible caregiving, they also viewed walking with their dog as something they wanted to do and that they enjoyed. As Fletcher and Platt note, this contrasts with the general tone of the literature on dog care, which tends to frame dog walking as an unpleasant chore.
Fletcher and Platt also found that respondents perceive their dogs to have subjective experiences, to feel emotions—and that the walk is really about making dogs happy. “There was widespread belief,” they write, “that dogs are happiest when out in the open, and it is here that they are able to best demonstrate their ‘dog-ness.’” For example, dog owner Jane spoke about walking her dog Copper:
One of the biggest joys for us is when one of us stands at one part of the field and the other, and he just runs. And we’ve managed to time him. He does 30 miles an hour. And he looks like a cheetah, he looks like a wild animal. And it just makes your heart, I mean, I feel a physical change in my body when I watch him run, which has never been created by anything else, really.
Over and over in their interviews, Fletcher and Platt found people referring to the individual characteristics of their dog, listening to their dog’s unique preferences, and expressing a commitment to making space for their animal’s agency. The walk is a way to help our dogs be dogs within the constraints of human environments—to take them to wild places, the give them space to run, sniff, chase, roll, mark, interact with other dogs and people (or not).
Just as a walk can be a way in which dog and human engage the world together and share experiences and strengthen their bond, walking can also be a time of anxiety, stress, power struggles, and unpleasant interaction—what Fletcher and Platt call “the contested nature of walking practices and spaces.” Stress can arise between the dog and her human through what the human might perceive as “bad leash behavior” or otherwise obnoxious or distressing behavior on the part of the dog: lunging at other dogs or at people, barking and growling, pulling hard on the leash. It can be a power struggle—with dog pulling one way and human pulling the other, neither one really getting any enjoyment out of the experience. Human spaces are not necessarily designed with dogs in mind. Nearly all municipalities have leash laws, some have very little to no off-leash areas specifically designated for dogs, and there are many public spaces where dogs are simply not allowed (some parks, ball fields, school grounds, restaurants, etc.). Walking also inevitably invites conflict: between dog walkers (e.g., when they have different ideas about dog-walking etiquette) and between dog walkers and other people (e.g., those who are afraid of dogs, those who don’t like dogs to pee or poop on their lawn).
Fletcher and Platt’s research has given me a lot to think about, as I go walking with my dogs Bella and Maya. I’ve been more conscious of the negotiations of power between us and of how each of my dogs want something quite different from the walk. For Maya, the walk is about sniffing and marking and interacting with other dogs. For Bella, it is all about the ball. For me, it boils down to making my dogs happy.
Fletcher, P. and Platt, L. (2016). “(Just) a walk with the dog? Animal geographies and negotiating walking spaces,” Social and Cultural Geography.