I’m sure you’ve been counting down the days to your puppies first walk and it’s finally here. Maybe you have already been out and about for some off-ground socialisation, possibly in a puppy carrier or walker. But now that your pups vaccinations have fully kicked in, you can finally let them walk on the ground.
So, for our first lesson, let’s talk about the walk. We’re going to talk about what equipment you should use and avoid, how much exercise they can have, how to teach loose lead walking, and different ways to make the most out of your pups walks. We’ll also be talking about the benefits of getting off lead and the recall.
Let’s start with the equipment you’ll need. For most pups, a simple lead and collar, or harness, are all you’ll ever need. You might also benefit from a long line but we’ll chat about those later on. One thing you’ll definitely not need is a retractable lead. There are plenty of reasons why you would be wise to avoid these, and one of them is that they actually teach pups to pull on their leads. To gain freedom with a retractable lead, they have to pull on it to get it to extend out of the handle. This means your puppy will get used to feeling tension on the lead any time they want to go faster or further. It won’t be long before they connect that feeling with getting more freedom.
If that isn’t enough of a reason, they are also quite dangerous. I lose track of the amount of times that people have got burns on their hands from the cord, or had their feet pulled out from under them as the dog suddenly extends the lead across their path. Or dogs that have got wrapped around each other when they attempt to greet each other politely. These stories aren’t just internet gossip – I personally have a neck and shoulder injury that was caused by a dog tripping me up with the lead. Honestly, I think they are the worst thing ever invented.
You also won’t need a halti head collar, figure 8 lead, gundog lead, half or full choke chain, anti-pull harness, or anything else that is designed to make lead walking easier. Our mission, at this age, is to stop our pups from ever getting used to tension on the lead in the first place. This way they will always prefer to walk on a loose lead. So a simple harness or collar, with an ordinary light lead attached, is all it takes – plus a few treats, of course!
Whether you have a collar or harness, you’ll need to attach a tag that has your contact details on it. If you are in the UK you’ll need to include your name and address, but local authorities, and different countries may have different requirements. Fines can be large if you are found to not to have a tag with the right information attached to your dog, so please check for the latest guidance in your area
If you are using a collar you’ll need to make sure it is fitted properly. It should be loose enough that you can get two fingers between the collar and your pups neck, but not so loose you can pull it off without unbuckling it! A martingale collar is best for dogs with narrow heads, these are often seen on Greyhounds and Whippets, but some Jack Russell’s, and other breeds, can also benefit from them. A wider collar might suit a staffy type too as they can have pretty chunky necks!
A harness won’t restrict your dogs breathing so it can be a snug fit. You’d be amazed how wriggly a puppy can be if they want to be!
Many pups won’t like to pee or poop on their walks until they are around 5-6 months old. If this is the case for your pup, make sure to take them to their pee spot after every walk. Accidents after the walk are quite common because of this.
Lets start by dispelling a myth; there is absolutely no truth to the 5 minute rule. There I said it!
If you haven’t heard of it yet, the rule states that a growing puppy should be restricted to only five minutes of exercise for every month of their age. This would mean that your three month old puppy could only have fifteen minutes of exercise in a day. As the pup grows, the amount of exercise they can have increases, meaning that by 6 months of age they would get a maximum of 30 minutes, per day. Which is no where near enough for many breeds!
Pups that lack exercise and socialisation often struggle with anxiety, reactive behaviour, problems socialising with other dogs, frustration, separation anxiety, destructive behaviour, and much more. It’s a real problem, that could easily be corrected with the right amount of exercise. In fact, many of my clients are encouraged to increase the amount of exercise they get just so they can meet their dogs emotional needs!
You’ll notice that overexcitement was missed off that list. of course, this can also be made worse by a lack of exercise, but it is actually just as likely to be caused by a busy or energetic household, such as one that has young children. We are also to blame, with our own behaviour! But we’ll come back to that later in the course.
Anyway, back to the five minute rule! The myth started when a UK Gundog trainer called “JohnW” read the suggestion on a gundog owners forum in the USA. He thought it sounded reasonable and repeated it on a UK forum. The idea was quickly adopted, and has been repeated and shared many, many times since then. So much so, that for a while, even vets were sharing the misinformation. But, neither the original poster, or JohnW, were a vet or dog expert of any kind, they were just dog owners sharing their own thoughts!
Thankfully, many vets are now urging people to ignore it as there is no evidence that over-exercising a puppy negatively affects their joints. At least not at the levels we could achieve, as many peer reviewed studies have revealed.
In fact, a study undertaken in Norway in 2012, looked at dip dysplasia in Newfoundlands, Labrador Retrievers, Leonbergers, and Irish Wolfhounds. They found that off lead exercise actually had a protective effect of the joints. Whereas climbing stairs before 3 months of age increased the risk, and activities such as chasing balls and jumping could have a negative impact on the joints. Being overweight, and genetics, presented a much greater risk than extended amounts of exercise.
Dr. Darryl Millis summarised the studies on his website…
“There is no evidence that normal exercise causes damage to growth plates of puppies. In fact, jogging exercise (such as on a treadmill) appears to be beneficial to normal joints. It takes a lot of exercise to cause damage to joint cartilage. Jogging an hour per day seems to be beneficial to joint cartilage. But high speed running for long distances (12-24 miles per day) may eventually result in deleterious changes to cartilage. Dogs are built to run. Further, normal puppy play helps them to develop muscle, ligament, tendon, bone, and cartilage strength as well as coordination and proprioception.” Other studies have concurred including the Veterinary Journal (2022) who published research that found that puppies that were allowed to run freely for up to 2 hours per day were no more likely to develop arthritis as adults than puppies that were restricted to short walks. Basically, it says that there is a benefit to normal impact exercise, but making a puppy run for over 12-24 miles a day may result in damage. Unless you are planning on running daily marathons, you’ll be fine as long as exercise is not jerky or high impact.”
This doesn’t mean you should take your pup out for massive walks though. An over tired puppy is as grumpy, and hard to manage, as one that is full of energy. Don’t forget, the main purpose of exercise is to use up excess energy only. Not drain our pup of energy completely. As we can see, jumping up on people and bouncing off the furniture is more dangerous to our pups than any walk. None of us are going to attempt a marathon with our pups, so do what you feel is appropriate to balance your pups behavioural needs, weight, build, and energy levels. For example, a British Bulldog will likely need considerably less exercise than a Springer Spaniel!
For most dogs it’s probably reasonable to start with two, twenty-thirty minute walks a day, and see how you get on!
If you are interested, you can read more about the above study here… https://www.mylamedog.com/post/what-is-the-logic-behind-not-exercising-puppies-until-the-growth-plates-are-closed
If you are worried you might be giving your pup too much exercise, look out for jumping up and grabbing at the lead. These are two signs your young pup is mentally or physically over tired. Also pups that suddenly get grumpy, start pulling on their lead, refuse well known cues, and get snappy on their walks, might also be overdoing it. Sometimes, it’s like a switch going off, and it feels like they have suddenly forgotten everything they ever knew! If any of these things resonate, its probably time to shorten their walks, or spread their walks out over more outings.
And of course, any pup that collapses into their bed when they get home is probably also overdoing it. If you get a day like this, it’ll be a good idea to take it easy over the next few days, and maybe focus on socialisation rather than step count!
Every dog is so different though, so it is very much a process of trial and error. Even day to day, your pups own needs might change. Do remember though, that your puppies fitness will change depending on how much exercise you take together. If you push them hard while they are young, you are in danger of making them super fit, and they will continue to crave large amounts of exercise as they grow up. It’s all about finding a balance and just draining enough excess energy so they aren’t bored and frustrated, but also not collapsing in their bed!
If you asked your pup what their perfect walk would be like, they would include sniffy time, plenty of socialising and play, and a bit of training. As we can see from the research above, getting off lead is the safest way to exercise. Getting off lead means no jerking on the lead from you, or your pup, which is better for their joints. It also gives them freedom to express themselves, and explore in a natural way. They need a reliable recall though. There is plenty of advice online that will show you how to teach a recall. We started recall training in the pre-vaccination edition of this course, or you could check out my 30 day recall programme. But, however you choose to teach the basic command, if you use plenty of rewards and encouragement, you can’t go too far wrong, at this stage. Don’t worry, we’ll go into more detail about the things that can go wrong in a few days.
As mentioned, your pups perfect walk will include some sniffy time. Following scents to find treasure is particularly rewarding. Plus, just a few minutes of sniffing can be as tiring as a short walk. Hunting games are also highly enriching, and can prevent boredom behaviours at home. You could either follow a trail that your pup has discovered by themselves, or scatter some treats into long grass for them to find. Your pup can’t find things to sniff when you are marching with them on lead. So once you get to the park, take your time, and walk slowly. Lot’s of good things happen when we slow down our walks. Pups become more curious about their environment, and that has a calming effect. Try walking at half your normal pace next time you are near something that might offer good sniffs, and see where your puppy leads you.
It’s not possible to feel anxious whilst exploring, so sniffing is a great way to lift your pups mood!
The perfect walk will also be after a nap, and before a meal. We talked about the bodies natural biological rhythm in the previous course, and how to make the most of it in your puppies routine. If you missed it, we learned that exercise and play are hunting activities. In order to hunt well a dog needs adrenaline, so the body naturally starts to produce it when they wake up. This prepares them to be great hunters and fighters. As they engage in exercise and hunting activities, the body stops producing adrenaline, and switches on the hormones required for rest and digest instead. So going for a walk before breakfast means that the pup will at their calmest when they get their food. I’ll talk more about why that is so important in a few days!
We’re going to talk about how to meet dogs in tomorrows lesson, but for now I’ll talk about why making doggy friends is so important!
Meeting new dogs in the park is good, but having a friend they know well is essential for resilience and confidence. Your pup probably doesn’t have any regular friends yet. So for now, it’s about finding suitable dogs to socialise with so those relationships and skills can develop. Handle this carefully, though. Not everyone in the park wants their dog to socialise so please don’t just head over to every dog you see. You’ll get good at spotting those that don’t want to say “hi” very quickly, but in the mean time it’s a good idea to ask, or join walking groups that have been set up to socialise dogs and pups.
Of course, not meeting every dog or person is an important part of the socialisation process too. Your pup should grow up feeling just as relaxed about not meeting dogs as they do about meeting them, so don’t feel bad if that happens too. When you find dogs that do want to meet your pup though, take advantage and let your pup greet them in their own way. This means a very loose lead, or no lead, ideally. More arguments are caused by the lead, than by the dogs.
We also know that your pup wants to learn new things on their walk. A puppy that is given freedom to explore and socialise may learn new things all by themselves, but you don’t want them to have all that fun without you. Especially as it’s a dangerous world out there. Our pups don’t understand the environment they are in so they rely on us to keep them safe, and for that we’ll need a little control.
So, if you can, try to set aside a few minutes of your daily walk to practise whatever you are working on with your pup. It could be anything, but I highly recommend a few minutes of recall training or sit/stay so you can get your pup off lead as soon as possible, and have a cue that is associated with calm.
The first time you head out into the big wide world with your pup is a milestone day. The world is a big and scary place for a tiny puppy and for the last few weeks you have been the centre of your pups world. You’ve cared for him, fed him, and kept him safe. It would take a seriously brave pup to wander off on his first ever walk, in a strange place, wouldn’t it?
You can take advantage of this, and let your pup off his lead for the first time. As you walk away, he’ll want to stay close. He won’t let you get too far before running to catch up, simply because he feels safer with you than he did hanging back or exploring on his own. He’ll never forget that. All you have to do is reward him every time he voluntarily checks in with you, and without even trying, your recall training has taken a massive leap forward. As he grows up, he’ll gain in confidence, but he’ll never forget how good it felt to run to you on that first ever walk.
You could also use a long line. This is not the same as an extendable lead; a long line is just a very long lead that will trail on the ground. They mostly come in 5m and 10m lengths, and these are more than long enough. And even the 10m one can be difficult to manage. What it does for you, is allow you to drop the lead and give your pup some freedom, without losing all control. It’s a stepping stone between being on lead and off lead. But, don’t walk your pup using this lead, it should only be used when you are in a safe, off lead type area, and only while you build recall confidence.
The alternative is to wait until your pup is older. His confidence will grow with every walk and you may find you have a much longer wait before you can safely let him off his lead, if you leave it too long. As every day passes you’ll have to counter his confidence with even more training. Whatever you do though, don’t wait until adolescence begins. This is the worst time to let a dog off lead for the first time. At times, they can be so full of confidence it is bursting out of them. They are experimenting with their behaviour during this phase, so the chances of them refusing a recall are very high. If you don’t try this soon, you’ll have to wait until they are around 18months old, or more, before they are past this phase and it’s safe again.
Take a walk!
On your next walk, use your long line, or head to a safe space, to give your pup their first taste of freedom. Practise your recalls and make them super fun. Use your line to bring your pup close if he gets distracted, or refuses, to recall to you. And, if you feel safer, take friends or family for support.
The tension release exercise!
Take five minutes and start working on your pups response to tension on the lead.
Start with a treat in your hand (and some more that are easily accessed). Start with your pup on the lead and move forward slowly. The absolute second the lead tightens STOP still and don’t move. Allow the tension on the lead to remain and wait for your pup to release it themselves, you mustn’t help them. The release will happen by accident, but that’s fine. As soon as the lead slackens shout “YESSS good boy/girl” and offer the treat.
Now get another treat ready, and start moving. Be ready for the tension again and get ready to stop moving. If you help your pup, they will never learn how to release the tension themselves, and your walks will never change. If you let them figure out the code, they will eventually avoid pulling on all your normal walks.
Try to do this for a few minutes before every walk, if you can, for the next few walks!
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