Updated: Nov 11
We’ve all heard that age old adage “a tired dog is a good dog”, and what better way to tire out our four-legged companions than a nice long walk through the neighbourhood? That is what we do with dogs right? We walk them.
This is so inherent an idea, that Germany is looking to introduce a new law in 2021 that will require dog owners to walk their dog twice a day for a total of one hour per day. While the sentiment behind this law is spot on; our dogs are not cuddly toys and DO need appropriate exercise of course, but is a walk always the right way to go about it?
Walking can be a fantastic source of exercise and mental stimulation for our dogs and we absolutely encourage it! However, not all walks are created equal, just as not all dogs are created equal and perhaps it’s time to rethink walking; to put more emphasis on the “appropriate” part of “appropriate” exercise.
High energy, intelligent dogs will require more than a jaunt through the streets to keep them balanced, puppies may need less walking to ensure proper joint development and anxious dogs may struggle to get out of the door, so let’s dive into a couple of these scenarios in a little re-think walking series!
How much is too much for a pup?
Believe it or not, even with that boundless puppy energy, it is possible to over exercise our puppies! Until our dogs reach sexual maturity, which varies with each breed, everything is still growing. Our puppy’s bones contain growth plates to allow them to lengthen as our puppy grows and these growth plates, as well as our puppies bones, stay soft for quite a while, which makes them more susceptible to injury. Injuries from over walking or accidents at this age have a harder time healing and so could lead to long term damage. In addition, those bones are supported by tendons, ligaments and muscles that are still developing and should also be given the time to do so.
Another, often under estimated side effect of over walking our younger pups is actually over-tiring and/or over stimulating them. Jumping up on us, leash biting, ankle biting or redirected frustration can all be a result of an over stimulated brain while out on a walk, and is a problem a lot of pet parents encounter. This usually happens part way through the walk and is a difficult and frustrating way to end our nice relaxing dog walk! As with all unwanted behaviours, prevention is better than cure and so, often the advice is to build up those walks slowly and cut it off before our pups are getting to that super high - over stimulated mental state.
"But how do I know how long to walk for then?" I hear you cry, well, the general rule of thumb for puppy walks is five minutes per every month of age, so for a three-month old pup, that would be a 15 minute walk twice a day. Great, all sounds very simple, right? But what if our puppy hits the deck every time the door opens and refuses to budge?
When we think of pet parents struggling to walk their dogs, we typically think of them being pulled down the street by strong, unruly dogs, however, one of the main concerns we deal with our puppy parents is quite the opposite! A lot of pups will get outside and freeze, not wanting to leave the house or yard. Some may make it down the street before stopping without budging but will run as fast as their little legs with take them on the way home.
So, how do we walk those pups? Well, in truth, we don’t. Not yet anyway. It is important to recognize this is not stubbornness! It's most likely a bit of anxiety about something in the whole walking situation and so we should treat it as such. For some puppies leaving the comfort of where they feel safe and heading out in to the big wide world, is scary. There are a whole host of new sounds, new smells, new sights, things moving, that we, with our limited human senses have no idea about!
Granted, we can’t just leave them in the crate or house – that’s no good for proper physical or mental development either, so, what do we do?
Here is where that magic word comes in – “appropriate”. There are lots of ways to burn that crazy puppy energy in the house, from puzzle toy, toy skills and games to working for their food through training games.
Burning brain energy properly in our pups is actually as important, if not more so in some cases, than physical exercise. Think about a hard day in the office, at school, or even a short tough test you've had and now think about how tired you were afterwards, whether or not you had hit the gym that day. The same is true for our dogs!
We need to exercise those brains!
The other great thing about brain games within the house is that, for those pups who perhaps are a little more shy about going outside, they can actually boost our puppy's mood and confidence so that when we do go out to practice being outside, we start from a happy state of mind. As weird as it is to say “practice” being outside, it is exactly where to start! After a few minutes of games inside, take it on the road!
Take a blanket, take some treats or kibble and a toy to the front of your residence and simply sit with your puppy for a few minutes or so at a time and play. The exact amount of time to be out there is very dependent on your individual puppy, the main consideration is to end on a good and happy note, so if by 10 minutes your pup is beginning to freeze up or want to run for the hills, maybe next time, end at seven or eight minutes.
Choose a place on the threshold of where puppy is comfortable, we always want to start from a happy place where we can be successful but where we can begin to expose our puppy to the big wide world. Watch the world go by, play, offer treats, practice any tricks you know and enjoy, anything your puppy enjoys to boost his mood, introduce him to the sounds and sights of the world in a happy manner. Believe it or not taking in all those new experiences will actually work to tire your pup as they are constantly forming new neural networks in their brain. By taking it slow, we can also ensure that all those new brain pathways associated with being outside are good, happy ones helping to set our pups up for long term success!
Soon, the front yard, hallway, patch of grass outside the building will become another part of their happy zone and they will be more inclined to venture further!
Once our pups are beginning to feel brave and want to explore the next few houses, keep the walk fun, engaging and short! (This is still not the time to zone out and check Instagram unfortunately – that may come later!) Two games I lean heavily on when I am encouraging a reluctant walker is “find it” and “touch”.
Find it involves our pup chasing and catching a bouncing treat/kibble, or snuffling in the grass or leaves for a tasty snack. This game keeps the walk fun and engaging and also taps into that natural scavenging behaviour our dogs innately have. Begin by practicing at home with minimal distractions.
Simply drop a treat close to your pup, say "Find it" and let them track the treat down. Once they have it in their sights, add your marker sound (click/Yes!) and allow them to reward themselves by gobbling up that treat/kibble. Once your pup gets used to the game, you can begin to toss that treat further away and into more complicated environments (i.e. long grass/leaves).
Touch is a very simple target training exercise, where our pup simply touches his nose to the palm of our hand in order to get access to a tasty snack. The reason it’s so handy on a walk – where that little black dot of a nose goes, the rest of the body has to follow!
Begin again, inside the house with minimal distractions and place your hand right in front of your pups nose, your pups, being naturally curious will check it out with his favourite sense (smell!) and boop your hand with his nose. As soon as you feel that wet little nose, add your marker sound (Yes!/click) and reward close to your outstretched hand.
Build it up to moving your hand a little further away from your pup each time and then start to ask for multiple touches for one snack.
Find it/Touch Combo – once pup begins to move down the street, or seems like she wants to, why not combine the two games! One touch – YES! And a tossed treat in the direction of travel! Extra fun! (And extra mileage!)
Add a toy
Make walking playful, if you can only get three houses down the road, see if you can play a fun game of tug and then head on home, end that walk on a high to encourage your pup and really let them know, walking, being outside - it's actually super fun!
The main thing to keep in mind with shy pups is to keep walks short and successful to keep pup wanting to come back for more. If you only make it to the end of the street today, Wahey! Maybe tomorrow you can make it around the corner! The main thing to bear in mind is not to force a worried pup to go further or faster than they are ready to go. We want to let your pup know that you have heard them when they say "I'm not sure I'm OK with this" and build up that trust in us. New research is indicating that we cannot reward fear, so, listen to your pup, keep that relationship strong, take it as slow as they need and you'll be out adventuring in no time!