We recently were introduced to The Dog Race Database, the work of health research psychologist, runner, and dog-lover, Bethany Merillat. Bethany’s research has resulted in a very extensive database of dog-friendly walks, runs, and other races.
We were blown away by the amount of work that went into this project and couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn why, how, and what she found over the course of the work.
1. Why? Where did your passion come from to undertake a project like this?
My husband and I are both runners and dog lovers and periodically go for runs with our two dogs, Boston and Indy (both Australian Shepherds). A while back, my husband found a flyer for a race you could run with your dog. Neither of us had ever heard of such a thing and didn’t know it was possible. He was excited to do the race, but it was, unfortunately, not close to us, and when we tried to search on the internet for other events, we had a hard time finding anything nearby. There are a lot of great race databases out there that have filters for race distance, type, and location – but none mentioned whether or not you could bring a dog. My research instincts kicked in – it made me wonder, how many of these events existed, where were they located, what was the average size, who attended them? When repeated searches failed to find any concrete information, I pitched the idea of doing a research project on it to my boss. He was skeptical, but gave me the go ahead – and what I found ended up being quite remarkable!
2. How have you collected the data?
When I first began my research, there was no huge database to draw on, especially for the unique information I was seeking, such as how long races had been run, how many dogs attended per year, or even the type of race (e.g., walk, run, mud run, etc.). It was also challenging because races start and stop, some years they are dog-friendly and others they are not (due to changes in insurance or venue), and race directors constantly change – so sometimes retrospective data is lost.
Luckily, one site, the Iron Doggy, had a small database of such events, which I was able to use as a starting point. The full procedure for my data collection procedure is detailed in the appendix of the paper, but to summarize, we did an in-depth scraping of all dog-related events on the internet, using both dog (e.g., fido, furry, paws) and run/walk (e.g., strutt, scurry, dash, stroll) terms. We contacted the race director for every event we found and asked for retrospective data as well as information on the race and in-depth details about why they decided to make it dog-friendly, logistics, concerns, size, perks for dogs, etc.
The criteria for inclusion was that the event had to be a human-dog event in which the participants covered a distance together as a team. Therefore, Canicross, where a dog and human run together would count, as would skijoring (dog and human ski team), but a Wiener Dog race, sled-dog race or greyhound race would not. Races where dogs could run in one of the events, but not all, were also included (e.g., races with dog-friendly and no-dog waves, or races where dogs could only participate in the 5k, but not the marathon).
Traditional statistical data collection procedures and analytical procedures were strictly followed as part of the research protocol, all of which is laid out in detail later in the paper. My background is in experimental psychology with a focus on quantitative statistics, and I am very passionate about data analysis.
3. What kind of connection have you seen between dog ownership and dog owners’ physical health?
I think we can all point to the anecdotal stories in our own lives – the friend who rescued a dog and got physically active and fit, the grandparent who thrives off of companionship their pet provides, or the child who opens up and is calmer and less anxious around their furry friend. Numerous research studies have also found health benefits for pet ownership. Dog owners are more likely to engage in physical activity than non-dog owners (Christian et al., 2013), and those with a four-legged pal also have a lower risk of death from any other cause, including cardiovascular events (Mubanga et al., 2017).
The findings suggest that there is not necessarily one reason why this is the case, but rather point to a number of factors which contribute, such as the strength of the dog-owner relationship (Lim & Rhodes, 2016). Taking care of a dog is a responsibility, yet the process of buying, raising and caring for a canine necessitates engaging in activities which are beneficial to our health, such as going for daily walks, and interacting with others through activities as simple as going to the vet, or as complex as dog-training classes.
Something that might start as a necessity, such as basic obedience classes, can lead to friendships and a desire to participate in other dog-friendly activities. Dogs break social barriers. While a person might naturally be shy, most dogs are fearless, provide great fodder for conversation, and can be the source of endless engaging and hilarious discussions. Research confirms that dog-ownership indeed helps to fulfill the human need for social interaction (Westgarth et al., 2014).
4. Have you seen non-dog events open up to include dogs?
You know, that is an interesting question and something I wanted to look into with my work. Unfortunately, because many races change hands over the years, and few keep detailed records, I was not able to quantify the number of races and at what point they became dog- friendly, with statistical accuracy.
I will say that many directors related seeing rising numbers of people just “showing up” with their dogs in recent years, which led them to take actions themselves, such as getting insurance to cover dogs, to changing race policies to make the event safer for all involved (e.g., having dogs start at the front of the group, or dog and non-dog waves to keep competitive runners happy, and avoid tangled leashes and falls).
Others reported that they either started with the explicit goal of having dogs (such as for an animal shelter fundraiser), or, hearing about/seeing the success of other such events, made their race/walk dog friendly to draw an even larger crowd, adding fun perks and prizes for dogs, contests for pets and their owners, and plenty of water and snacks on the course for both four and two-legged participants. I can also say that a number of events which I contacted have added additional perks, updated insurance and/or modified their race policies just in the short time I have been managing the database, so I think the landscape is and will continue to change and adapt over the years out of a response to the demand for events inclusive of pets.
5. How have those events overcome the risks and concerns of including dogs?
Some, unfortunately, are unaware of the risks they take on by allowing dogs and do not carry insurance to cover the potential problems associated with negative outcomes. However, I will say that of the over 4,000 race directors I have spoken with, only a handful reported any incidents, and most were minor.
It seems that most people who bring their pets to these events are responsible owners who know their pets and leave them at home if they cannot handle the crowds. However, I have heard cases of people getting tangled in leashes and falling, as well as the occurrence of a few dog fights.
I have also spoken to many race directors who would LOVE to have dogs, but can’t due to limitations of their venue, or the high cost it would add to their insurance package. As mentioned previously, those who seem to have the best success are the ones that clearly state their policy on dogs both online and in their race waiver (e.g., dogs must be on a leash, not in heat, up to date on all their vaccines, etc.), and have clear expectations for how they are to participate in the event (e.g., pick up after your pet, start at the back of the pack, or run in the dog-only wave).
6. What’s the trend been in the number of events and participants?
Once again, this was a tricky area as the lack of retrospective data proved to be a significant challenge in data collection. Because of that, I cannot state definite facts, but I can tell you that from the information I was able to collect there appears to be a trend suggesting a rising number of dog-friendly events, a rise in events which were once not dog-friendly embracing four-legged pals, and an increasing number of dogs and their humans choosing to get out and have fun at the various walk, run, obstacle course, glow run and other fun events available.
Race-specific data, for the events that keep track, has shown an overall trend of slight increases year-over-year in canine attendance, but this can fluctuate as a function of weather and other events. Some directors have also seen a decline and/or ended up canceling their race due to the recent surge in other non-traditional race formats (e.g., glow runs, mud runs, color runs), which they report have siphoned off some of the people that might otherwise have attended their fundraiser.
What I can say number-wise is that the majority of dog-friendly events are walk/run events (94.66%), and around 40% are not specifically dog-dedicated events, but rather traditional walk/runs which also allow dogs (vs. an activity like Bark for Life where the event is centered around bringing your four-legged friend to the walk/run). Across the US the availability of events is most closely tied, as would be expected, to the population. However, the South does have a slight advantage, with 31% of all dog-friendly events occurring there, followed by the MidWest and the West. California leads with the largest number of dog-friendly events for a state, followed by Ohio, Texas, and Maryland.
About Bethany Merillat
Bethany Merillat, MS, MEd, is a health research psychologist whose work focuses on interventions to help people lead happier, healthier lives. She is also a life-long runner and enjoys hitting the road and trails with her husband and two Aussies, Boston and Indy. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, reading, and playing the violin. See Bethany’s work at RunRepeat.com.