Alright, I know what you're thinking when you look at that title. "Walking with your puppy. Step one, put a leash on your puppy. Step two, walk." Simple, done, easiest blog post ever.
I only wish it were that easy! I'm writing this post as someone who has spent a lot of time recently working on polite leash walking with my own puppy, and seen a number of other puppies throughout the neighborhood on walks. I will tell you this, Phoebe is now five months old and just in the last few weeks have I started to actually walk her around the block fully. Does this mean that Phoebe never left the house outside of that? Nope. Does this mean we didn't do any work on leash? Definitely not.
When you are walking with your young puppy (when I say young puppy I generally mean ages 8 weeks to 6 months, however some of these could easily apply to adolescent dogs up to about a year as well) there are many things to consider. Listed below are some of my top concerns that I generally discuss with my puppy students:
1) How long is it appropriate to walk a young puppy for?
For this question I like to reference Puppy Culture's Exercise Chart (found here), which has recommendations from very experienced puppy raisers who specialize in breeding for competition and performance. It should be noted that there is a HUGE difference between relaxed sniff-filled walks and more structured walks where you expect your dog to "keep up" with you. I have heard the suggestion to walk a puppy 5 minutes for every month they are old, and think this is a nice rule of thumb and it's what I did with Phoebe. So, if you have an eight week old puppy then you can walk them for ten minutes, three month old puppy for 15, 4 month old puppy for 20, and so on and so forth. However, if you have any specific concerns always discuss with your vet!
Why the conservative time limits? Puppies have something called growth plates; according to PetHelpful.Com growth plates are "soft areas of developing cartilage tissue found by the ends of the dog's long bones. They are typically made of cartilage when the puppy is born, but gradually they calcify and transforms into denser bone as the puppy matures". If a puppy is over-exercised or consistently puts too much stress on their growth plates it can affect how the plates close and cause injury over time. Yes, our puppies need exercise and yes they do run around like lunatics for the better part of the day, but that is the puppy choosing to do so without direction from their human, and they know when they need a break.
On top of the physical demand long walks on concrete will put on your puppies, there is also the mental overstimulation and stress that is possible on walks. Remember, many young puppies have never seen the world before, and so they often need to take it all in stride at there own pace. I often see young puppies sit down or refuse to move; we need to resist the urge to pull them and make them keep moving forward, because this is often the puppy's way of saying "I need a mental break". If you let the puppy rest for a few minutes, or even simply turn around and head the other way where they were feeling more comfortable they often recover. On the opposite end of the spectrum are puppies who get revved up and agitated with all of the external stimuli on walks and start running around with zoomies, biting the leash, and vocalizing. These puppies get overstimulated on their walks, and need more time to process and less excitement, gradually desensitizing them to the world.
2) What kind of equipment should I use with my puppy?
Equipment is always a big topic of discussion amongst dog trainers. Anyone who's hung around my blog for any length of time knows I prefer harnesses over anything else, and that goes double for young puppies. Even while you are training on polite leash walking with your puppy they may sometimes forget themselves, or they may see a leaf blow in the wind ahead and dart out to get it. These are completely normal puppy reactions, but if they are on a collar they run the risk of choking themselves. If you have a puppy who doesn't care much about leash pressure they may even collapse their own trachea by putting repeated, consistent pressure on their throats.
You should also be using a regular old 6 foot leash; it's tempting to use Flexi-leads with puppies since it gives them some room to run, however Flexi-leads will inadvertently teach your puppy to pull on leash, and are not always safe given that your puppy is 16 feet ahead of you. If your puppy picks something up and eats it, there's no way you're going to be able to catch up to see what it is.
In addition to a harness and six foot leash, you must always have treats with you in these learning stages, whether that's in a treat pouch or in your pockets. I CANNOT overstate how much easier it is to teach a puppy to walk politely from the beginning than it is to try and reteach a dog that's already learned to pull. While you walk with your puppy reinforce when they check in with you, and when they're walking politely at your side. When your puppy encounters something new offer a delicious treat to help them pair the new experience with something they enjoy. You will be amazed at how quickly your puppy learns that it pays to stay with you while out walking.
For some suggested harnesses, treat pouches, and treats check out my resources page here.
3) How do I safely socialize my puppy on walks?
Again, anyone who has been reading this blog for any amount of time knows that I think the number one most important thing to cover when working with puppies is making sure they are getting their socialization in before they hit 16 weeks. There is a bit of disparity between the veterinary world and the training world where some veterinarians suggest not letting your puppy go out on the town until they're fully vaccinated at 16 weeks, while the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behaviorists and many trainers suggest getting your puppy out and about frequently before their window of socialization closes around 16 weeks of age (for more on socializing your puppy visit this page.)
So the question is how do you make sure your puppy is getting their socialization while at the same time protecting against possible disease and sickness? Avoid taking your puppy to any areas that are traveled by many unfamiliar dogs; pet supply stores, dog parks, and potty areas for apartments and condos come to mind. Avoid letting your puppy investigate any kind of animal waste, especially since that is how Parvovirus is contracted. If you do take your puppy to the pet supply store you can put a bed in the shopping cart and allow puppy to watch everything going on in the store from that safe space. Taking your puppy to a well organized and clean puppy class is a great way to help them get their socialization in with other puppies and unfamiliar people. Look for a class that uses positive, force-free methods and has free puppy play during the class; if the trainer suggests using physical or verbal corrections leave and consider asking for a refund. No need for corrections when working with your puppy! Additionally, you can introduce your puppy to fully vaccinated dogs that you know well and know are also well socialized with other dogs. If you're not positive that the other dog will be appropriate with your puppy, then don't risk it!
It should also be noted that socialization isn't merely about interacting with other dogs and people. Seeing people, dogs, and novel objects but being able to remain calm and neutral are important skills for a puppy to have throughout their lives, just as important as greetings. If your puppy learns that dragging you up to every dog they see works, then that's what they'll do when they see other dogs. Instead, teach your puppy to focus on you when around other dogs and people, and if you decide to let your puppy say hi give them a clear cue such as "okay, go say hi" to teach your puppy clear expectations.
Some other places to socialize your puppy:
- Home Depot and Lowes allow dogs into their stores. Also call local garden centers.
- Any other local stores that allow dogs (but are not dog-centric). Some Nordstrom's, Half-price books, and local stores may welcome puppies.
- Near playgrounds and schools to observe children but not necessarily interact
- Neighbor's homes
- Even just parking in a local parking lot and sitting with your puppy in the car, watching the world go by is a great socialization opportunity.
4) What else do I need to know?
My number one motto with puppies while out working on walking and socialization is pay attention to what your puppy is saying. If your puppy sits down or freezes, give them a break and some time to work out the environment. Feed them some super yummy treats and use a happy voice to reassure them. They aren't being lazy or spiteful, more often than not they're a little overwhelmed by the environment and need some time to acclimate. On the other hand, if your puppy starts to jump, mouth, and act like a Tasmanian devil keep walks shorter, stopping BEFORE your puppy gets overstimulated, and bring a toy on the walk so that your puppy has something appropriate to bite. Walks should be relaxed and enjoyable; resist the urge to ask your puppy for too much too soon.
And lastly, let your puppy vote with their feet (I don't know who came up with this phrase, but I LOVE it!). Don't push or pull your puppy towards anything or anyone, let them approach novel dogs, people, and objects on their own terms. Keep slack in the leash and go at the pace that your puppy is most comfortable with.
If you have any other questions about this please ask in the comment section below, or feel free to email me at Mary@happyhounduniversity.com. Happy walking (at your puppy's pace!!!)