A recent research paper “(Just) a walk with the dog? Animal geographies and negotiating walking spaces” is based on the premise that the walk is an interesting event for studying the human-canine bond. The general conclusions of the study were that the personalities of both human and dog influence the walk, and that the walk is a part of life which involved power negotiations between the dog and the human. It also reports that according those interviewed for the study, people want their dogs to enjoy getting to “be a dog” by running free on walks.
This research is so different than most other research on dogs and dog behavior, and at least part of the reason is that the background of the researchers is completely different. They are not ethologists, animal behaviorists or psychologists, which are the scientists that publish the majority of studies on canine behavior. The lead author of the paper, Thomas Fletcher, is a specialist in the sociology of sports and leisure with special interest in race, ethnicity, diversity, social identities and heritage. The second author on the paper, Louise Platt specializes in festival and event management with an interest in cultural identity and constraints of social norms.
The research and its conclusions seem pretty simple for anyone familiar with dogs and what we have learned about them and our relationship with them over the past few decades. What interests me about the study is that it reveals a perspective on dogs that will be unfamiliar to many in the dog world. The article indicates that the researchers hold an antiquated view of the relationship between dogs and humans, stating that “the walk reflects the historical social order of human domination and animal submission,” going on to point out that the walk “allows humans and dogs to negotiate their power within the relationship” and that “Rather than there being a one-way flow of power where the human is dominant, the dog walk is where humans and dogs negotiate power within their relationship.”
The study consisted of 10 interviews with dog guardians about their dog walking experiences. From these meager data, the researchers made their conclusions, most of which are already known. (For example, “The data reveal that humans walk their dogs in large part because they feel a deep-rooted emotional bond with them and hold a strong sense of obligation to ensure they stay fit and healthy. Perhaps more interestingly, humans also walk their dogs because they believe their dogs have fun and are able to be more ‘dog-like’ while out on a walk” and “The walk was seen as an invaluable opportunity for dogs ‘to be dogs’. There was widespread belief that dogs are happiest when out in the open, and it is here that they are able to best demonstrate their ‘dog-ness’.”)
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My initial response to this study was negative because of the small sample size, the rather obvious conclusions and the out-of-date perspective on the relationship between our two species. But my second impulse was to value the fact that the researchers were investigating dog and human interactions from a field that has largely ignored animals and their role in human lives until all too recently. They clearly plan to do more research, based on their statement that “Moving forward, we would like to see research taking place that can capture the ‘beastly’ nature of animals, allowing them to act without human interference.” Becoming more familiar with previous research about dogs and understanding our strong evolutionary history will hopefully guide their future research, allowing them to make worthwhile contributions in the future.
Though I was not impressed by the research or its conclusions, some of the quotes from the transcripts of the interviews are quite relatable, and will likely resonate with many dog lovers. I especially loved this comment: “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.”