AMHERST, Mass. – Dog owners aged 60 and older may be eligible to participate in a free dog training class as part of a pilot study, Project Rover, by behavioral scientist Katie Potter at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
Project Rover will involve up to 44 older adults who will take a three-week training course with their canine pals taught by certified behavior adjustment trainer Caryl-Rose Pofcher, owner of My Dog Training in Hadley. The 45-minute class will meet twice a week, on Wednesday evening and Sunday morning, on the UMass Amherst campus.
Pofcher will teach skills and commands that support safe and enjoyable dog walking, including loose leash walking, pace changes, direction changes and full stops. Before and after the course, participants will undergo physical and cognitive measurements and wear an activity monitor on their leg to track their steps. Participants will receive $20 for each of three assessment visits to Potter’s UMass Behavioral Medicine Lab, where the assistant professor of kinesiology designs and tests strategies that use the human-animal bond to increase physical activity and improve psychosocial well-being.
“We want to see if, as people walk more, they might gain some strength and improve their balance,” says Potter, who will also gauge any cognitive changes with a simple memory test.
From a public health perspective, the goal is to get people, especially older adults, to “walk more and sit less.” Even if people don’t take long dog walks, “dogs might make them get up more,” Potter said, pointing to potty breaks, short walks and playtime. “A lot of people need to get up and move.”
Dog walking has benefits beyond increasing physical activity, Potter notes. Dogs themselves offer well-documented companionship, and people tend to socialize with neighbors and other dog owners when they’re outdoors with their pets. “I always try to stress those other benefits of dog walking,” she says.