Although the majority (~60%) of dog owning children in this study reported that they usually walked their dog, there was a substantial proportion (~40 %) who reported that they did not usually walk their dog. As previous research indicates that only 4% of the dogs were reported never to be walked , this indicates that other friends and family were performing this role without the child. Just over a third of the dog owning children reported that they walked their dog once a day or more, as would be the ideal case for health benefits. The findings of this study suggest that walking pet dogs is a useful but under-utilised opportunity for physical activity for 9-10 year old children in Liverpool, UK.
In this context, the figure of 9% that reported never walking with their own dog is small compared with 41% of children in an Australian study who were reported (by the parents) never to walk with their dog . This suggests that the children in our study may have over-reported walking with the dog compared to the response that parents may have given if asked. Alternatively, it may be an accurate representation of the situation, perhaps reflecting cultural and geographic differences between the study populations.
Stronger attachment to the pet was highly associated with regular walking with the dog. This concurs with previous evidence that the main contributing factors to regular compared to rare dog walking behaviour in adults appears to be owners that feel that their dog provides support and motivation to walk , a sense of ‘dog obligation’  and report strong attachment to the dog , regardless of other potential factors such as socio-demographics. It is not known whether having a stronger bond with a dog causes walking, or walking a dog strengthens the bond between dog and owner, but it is likely a bit of both. It is unlikely that our finding was simply due to the increased appropriateness of the one CENSHARE item concerning physical activity with the pet (spending time playing with or exercising a pet), as the difference in average scores was too large.
There was some evidence that reporting that friends also walk with their dog was seven times more likely if the child was non-white, ten times more likely if the child reported owning a Pit Bull type dog, but was a fifth less likely if the child owned more than one dog. These relationships are certainly not clear and require more investigation as they confound each other. However, they are interesting observations as Maher and Pierpoint (2011) have previously observed that so-called ‘status’ or ‘weapon’ dogs such as Pit Bulls play a role of companionship, socialisation and protection in youth gangs in deprived inner city areas . We previously reported that non-white children were more likely to report owning a Pit Bull type (but not the broader category of Bull Breeds) than White children and speculated that this could be a reflection of actual ownership of preferred dog types by different ethnic groups, or it could be due to non-whites being less inhibited in reporting that their dog is a Pit Bull, due to social and cultural reasons . Based upon these findings, we hypothesise that here may be an association between ethnicity, dog type owned and socialising in groups of friends with dogs, in children even at this young age.
We also found some evidence that children were twice as likely to report regular walking with their own dog if they also reported participation in sports or outdoor games of one hour a day or more. This may be due to the children viewing dog walking activities as inclusive in ‘sports and outdoor games’ when estimating the time spent in these activities. Alternatively, more active children may be more likely to enjoy participating both in sports and outdoor games, and walking with their dog. If our second hypothesis is taken to be true, the question remains as to whether dogs make children more active or more active children acquire pet dogs. It is known that active parents tend to raise active children  and parents are important role models  that can reinforce and support participation in physical activities . Thus, it may be that more generally active families also choose to have dogs.
However, our findings also showed that, not surprisingly, children who owned a dog were (twelve times) more likely to report walking any dog regularly compared to those without a dog, but were half as likely to report walking without a dog several times a week or more, than children without dogs. Thus, interestingly, time spent walking a dog may be in part ‘instead of’ rather than ‘additional to’ other time spent walking without a dog. It has previously been observed in adults that once dog walking was removed from the equation, dog walkers walked less than those without a dog; this led to a similar conclusion, that dog owners are selecting to be active with their dogs .
The strengths of this study are that the sample of children was relatively large, not convenience-based, and had high response rates, due to the specific context of data collection where all children were captured for a time period set aside purely for this purpose, and enthused to complete the questionnaire with support freely available. We also used multivariable regression modelling, to adjust for the confounding effects that demographic variables can have on each other, methods often lacking from previous literature in the study of human-animal Interactions. Demographic variables such as age, gender, socioeconomics and ethnic status are known to be associated with many health behaviours , and ownership of different pet types in adults [15, 16, 33, 34], and children , including this sample .
However, the data, like much human-animal interaction research, are limited by the nature of self-report , as we did not measure dog walking objectively, nor ask the parents for verification. We also did not have verification of pets owned or dog type. The data were collected from a specific population, 9–10 year old children attending primary schools in a notably deprived area of Liverpool, and thus may not be generalisable to other UK cities or country-wide, nor other age groups. Cross-sectional HAI observational studies such as ours are also limited in their ability to infer the direction of causation . The study also did not include how wider environmental factors may influence dog walking activity, as many factors known to influence physical activity in general, such as neighbourhood walkability, park attractiveness and safety, are also thought to influence dog walking [10, 23, 36].
Future research should elaborate on the intensity of dog walking participation, for example total minutes per week spent walking a dog, and intensity of exercise during dog walking as measured by accelerometers. Investigation of activities and behaviours of both dog and child during walking would clarify those that promote the most health-enhancing types of physical activity. Concurrent measurements of dog walking in parents as well as children would elucidate whether children do not walk with the dog because the dog is not being walked at all, or because another family member is walking the dog without the children, and the influence that parental involvement in dog walking can have on child physical activity. Perceived barriers and motivators to participation of children in dog walking activities should be investigated, incorporating both qualitative and quantitative examination of the perceptions of children and parents surrounding the role of their pet dog and feelings about walking with it. In addition, longitudinal studies should be used to investigate the effect of acquisition of a dog on long-term involvement in dog walking by children and parents. Such research will inform the design of possible future interventions to promote children to be more active with a suitable pet dog, under parental supervision .
Finally, consideration must be made to the complexities of the effects of dog ownership on the health and wellbeing of society. Although evidence suggests that owning a dog can confer both physical and mental health benefits [1–3] it also poses risks to health, for example zoonoses, bites, noise pollution, and the stress of dealing with behavioural problems . Concerns about dogs being walked may also be a barrier to physical activity in non-owners and thus efforts to promote dog ownership or dog walking must be planned carefully .