A percentage of the UK’s approximate 6.2 million dogs and their 15 million owners regularly visit the countryside. National statistics indicate that one third of all people who enjoy the countryside are accompanied by their dog and dog walkers are believed to be the most frequent visitors.
Most owners are aware that dogs encourage people to exercise, and walking can lead to many physical, social and psychological benefits. In recent years health officials and the government have moved towards encouraging people to exercise more as part of a healthy lifestyle and dogs are allowed to enter many areas, including the whole of the rights of way network and most, if not all, open countryside and country parks.
However, ‘man’s best friend’ can sometimes attract negative publicity from research reports concerned primarily with the impact of dogs on wildlife and the effect that dogs have on the enjoyment of non-dog walkers, especially when it comes to fouling and keeping dogs under control.
This research has tended to come from land managers reporting the behaviour of people walking dogs and there has been very little research into the perspective of dog walkers themselves. Indeed, to date, most studies and management practices emphasise restrictive measures, such as keeping dogs on leads or out of recreational areas.
The Kennel Club, Countryside Agency and English Nature recognised the need for a more positive approach a few years ago when they started work on the publication ‘You and your dog in the countryside’. This tied in with the advent of new open access land, under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, and the associated opportunities for dog walking. This work is ongoing and the organisations have continued to liase with other access organisations such as the Forestry Commission and the Countryside Alliance.
A couple of years ago, having attended a seminar for land managers that helped those present understand why people behave the way they do in the countryside, Hampshire County Council, the Kennel Club and Countryside Agency decided to form a partnership to increase understanding of dog walkers.
In December a research contract was established with the University of Portsmouth and a steering group was formed chaired by a member of the Hampshire Countryside Access Forum. Dr Victoria Edwards, from the Faculty of Environment, and Sarah Knight, a psychologist, worked with the steering group to design and conduct a research study that examines the psychological factors underlying the behaviour of people walking with dogs. Data was collected from dog walkers who participated in focus group meetings, where they were encouraged to rationalise their attitudes toward dogs and their behaviour when walking with dogs. A group of site managers also met to discuss dog walkers who visited their sites.
This data was analysed and a number of psychological principles were applied in order to develop a number of management measures relevant to people walking with dogs. These were tested out during two subsequent focus group discussions and the end product of this research is a report entitled ‘Understanding the Psychology of Walkers with Dogs: new approaches to better management’.
Jo Hale, Access Development Manager for Hampshire County Council said, "'We now have a much better understanding of how dog walkers use the countryside and what influences their choices on where to go and how to behave. Hampshire County Council intends to pilot recommendations made in the report and develop good practice that will be of use for anyone involved in managing access. In particular the pilots will test different ways of improving communication with dog walkers through consistent signage, information sheets, events and working groups so that they feel more welcome and valued, and so able to play a more constructive part in conserving our natural environment".
Abi Townsend of the Countryside Agency said: "The results provide us with a bigger picture. Little research has been done in the past on the behaviour of dog walkers and with nearly a third of visitors to the countryside being accompanied by a dog, we needed to know the best ways of providing information to such a major user group. All the data collected through this research will feed into future projects to do with dogs in the countryside, ensuring the needs of all countryside visitors can be met."
Sarah Knight from the University of Portsmouth continued, "The aims of this project were to listen to people explain their behaviour toward their dogs and when out walking. The management measures that we recommend are based on what we learned from dog walkers. These can help access/ land managers communicate with dog walkers and manage their sites in ways that will benefit managers, dog walkers, and other visitors to the countryside."
Caroline Kisko of the Kennel Club concluded, "The report advises that land manager policy and practice should improve communication with dog walkers, provide clear and consistent messages that let people know how they are expected to behave, encourage dog walkers to take responsibility for their pets behaviour and promote desired behaviours within the dog walking community. This will enable them to feel valued and welcomed everywhere and lead to effective land management and happy dogs and walkers."
You can download a copy of ‘Understanding the Psychology of Walkers with Dogs: new approaches to better management’, via the Kennel Club’s website: www.the-kennel-club.org.uk or from the Countryside Agency, Hampshire County Council or University Of Portsmouth sites.