Oh, to see the outside world through the eyes of an 8-week-old puppy: Everything is brand new! Blue sky, bright sunshine, blowing leaves, birds and bugs zipping about, lots of doting humans, and so, so many smells!
Besides giving your growing puppy some mental and physical stimulation — not to mention a chance to get some fresh air, sunshine and a bathroom break — walks are one of the best ways to introduce your pal to unfamiliar people, places and things, says Mikkel Becker, CPDT, a certified professional dog trainer and dog behavior consultant based in Seattle, Washington. It’s part of your dog’s critical socialization process.
“Walks are a great format to see the world as a fun, good place, rather than a scary place that a puppy is really uncertain of,” she says. “So it’s a great way to get a dog accustomed to and feeling happily acceptant of things they see out of their house.”
Read on to learn more about why these treks are so important, how long to walk a puppy and how to successfully — and safely — take your four-legged friend on daily jaunts. Then put on your walking shoes, because an adventure awaits!
Why Walks Are Important
Walking helps to socialize your puppy, but what exactly does that mean?
Socializing teaches a puppy how to interact with the world, including situations with other living creatures, explains veterinary behaviorist Bonnie Beaver, DVM, with the College of Veterinary Medicine, Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas. The critical time to do this, she says, is when the dog is between 3 weeks and 12 weeks old.
“The socialization period is the absolute most critical time for any breed of dog,” Dr. Beaver says. “It ends relatively early, so the new puppy owner needs to know a lot about what socialization is.”
This sensitive learning period is when the puppy owner introduces the dog to a wide variety of people, animals and experiences, to teach the dog what’s normal and OK. Curious and outgoing, the pup learns all about the world, developing his contact list of safe situations, people and playmates, says Lori Holmberg, CPDT, a certified associate applied animal behaviorist in Aurora, Colorado.
“In this time frame, puppies aren’t afraid of much, and they’re curious and interested in exploring their world,” Holmberg says. “Puppies should be given many good experiences with different sounds, surfaces, people and animals in different situations so that when something new happens as they grow and become adults, they will have solid coping skills.”
Walks outside provide all those things and more, says Becker, adding that socializing should continue even after the pup is older than 12 weeks of age and graduated from puppy kindergarten.
“Keeping that socialization up for the first year or two is really important because you want to boost that emotional bank account that the dog has with those everyday life experiences,” she says. “So if she does start to feel a bit more cautious about a situation, she’ll have had the background with it. She’s familiar with it.”
Before You Hit The Pavement
OK, so walks are important to a developing dog, but don’t head out the door right away. First you need the proper supplies.
Puppy Walking Supplies
Becker recommends a flat collar and a front-clip harness sized appropriately for your pal, fixed leashes in several lengths, tasty treats and tempting toys, all kept together in a convenient carrier. And don’t forget to microchip your pup and attach an ID tag to her collar, she says.
“For those dogs that are escape artists, I suggest a harness or something like a martingale collar — not a choke chair or anything like that — but a limited slip collar that gently tightens if the dog pulls,” she says. “It’s not corrective, but it’s helpful for dogs that might pull or back out of their collars.”
Steer clear of retractable leashes, she says.
“You have very little control of your dog on retractable leashes,” Becker says. “If your puppy sees something and he dashes out into the street, it’s really hard to reel her back, so I suggest a fixed-length leash. And if you’re wanting to give them extra room, that’s where long lines come in handy. That’s a really great way to let your puppy explore in a protected way.”
Though it may be tempting to clip a leash to your puppy’s collar and dash out the door for a long walk to the dog park, there are a few things to keep in mind, says Becker.
If your pup hasn’t had her full round of shots, be careful where you take her, she says.
“Use caution when taking your puppy to a place where there are potentially other dogs that aren’t vaccinated,” she says. “Instead, walk your dog in a protected space, like in front of your house or in a friend’s backyard where there are well-socialized, vaccinated dogs, where your pal can have their paws on the ground.”
Another option: Taking her for safe treks around town in a stroller or carrier.
“It’s almost like with a senior dog,” Becker says. “They can’t necessarily go out and physically walk, but they can get out and experience life, which is really helpful for the socialization aspect.”
Also be sure to take your time and build up walk distance.
Going The Distance
As the pup gets older, however, she can safely hit the sidewalk — but the distance and time she travels should edge up slowly, Becker says.
“It’s important to talk to your veterinarian about how far is too far,” she says. “A general guideline to start is about 10 minutes of low-impact exercise at a time. You can try different exercises, too, to tire out your puppy mentally and physically.”
And while she’s a puppy, avoid doing high-impact, high-exertion activities, Becker warns.
“Also talk to your vet about how much and what kinds of exercise they can do,” she says. “For example, one thing to really avoid at a young age is running, the height impact of jumping or intense exercise. Their growth plates are still closing until they’re 18 to 24 months old, depending on the individual.”
Stick with low-key walks with lots of sniffing and exploring, she says.
“Think of it as a hands-on experience of teaching the puppy about the world and getting to really experience the world through your puppy’s eyes,” Becker says. “She’s seeing and smelling all these things for the first time. It’s pretty exciting, so it makes it fun.”
Avoid Encouraging Bad Behavior
When it’s time to hit the road, make sure it’s on your terms. If your pal is yipping and whining at the door, wait until she settles before you head out.
“If you notice your puppy is acting a little rambunctious or mouthy, she could be telling you that she needs more mental stimulation,” Becker says. “One great thing is a walk. But don’t get into the routine of taking your dog for a walk if she’s really hyper or is acting crazy, because what can happen is you can establish a routine — when your dog is barking or acting out and you take her for a walk, for instance, that could reinforce that behavior.”
Instead, build routines around the walk itself, Becker says. Wait for the puppy to calm down before cuing, “Let’s go for a walk,” she says.
“Then ask her to sit and walk over toward the leash,” she says. “As she’s waiting patiently, reward her, and then clip the leash to her collar. Or if you’re using a harness, reward her when she puts her own head through. Pair those calm, positive behaviors with high-value rewards.”
While she’s being patient, you should be patient, too.
“Keep in mind that, like with kids, it’s hard for puppies to show self-control at that age,” Becker says. “They’re just so excited about everything! But if we can catch that tiny moment of calm, that split second when all four paws are on the ground, then, OK, we get to go out the door. Mark those calm behaviors and reward that.”
Pups Just Want To Have Fun
Walking your puppy provides mental stimulation, physical exercise, positive socialization and fun bonding time with you. As you help her figure out the big, sometimes-scary world, remember that you’re the one who is guiding her as she navigates the unknown.
“We’re teaching our puppies about the world,” Becker says. “And we’re helping them see those things as something good. Look at how your puppy is reacting to the world and ask yourself how you can help her better adjust to it. See the world for the first time with her, and really enjoy those little things. Get time outside, be in the moment, work through socialization and early training, and have fun!”