I know what you’re picturing. You’re picturing that perfect, leisurely walk down the street with your dog prancing at your side in stride with you. No pulling, no distractions, no issues.
Listen. That happens in movies. Real life looks a little different.
If you live in a city, you’re dealing with a LOT of distractions and a lot of sensory overload for a pup. This manifests as a lot of pulling, lunging, jumping, sitting, ignoring, sniffing, and general chaos.
I want you to repeat this phrase to yourself: “this is a newborn animal who is not programmed to walk on leash beside a human.”
As your puppy grows, it will change into “this is a struggling adolescent animal who is not programmed to walk on leash beside a human and is going through a major brain development phase and hormonal surge.”
Then, it will change into “this is an adult animal who is not programmed to walk on leash beside a human and has some life experience that might affect the progress we make.”
Now…please don’t read this and think “Great. There’s nothing I can do.” I just want you to understand that your dog is an animal and no animal is born and bred to walk beside us, attached by a leash, and ignore distractions that are typically chased, barked at, sniffed, or otherwise investigated. THAT is not normal. We can absolutely train a polite walking behaviour but it’s going to take time and while your puppy is a puppy, I don’t want you to worry about it.
You are not going to be “taking walks” with your puppy. You are going to be “socialising” them.
What does this mean?
When you take your puppy outside, you are not focused on distance and manners. You will be focused on exposure to novel people, dogs, places, sounds, textures, smells, and experiences. You will be focused on actively creating positive associations (so NOT just exposure!) with each of these, and even more so, you’ll be going at your puppy’s pace. Not the pace you choose to set for them. There will be a lot of stopping, sitting, refusing to move, pulling, jumping, excitement, distractions, and sniffing.
This is what you should expect until about 5-6 months of age. THEN, and only then, are we going to worry about manners and polite walking. Take it off your plate to make room for more important, time-sensitive things (socialisation) and give yourself a break.
Review the puppy exercise guidelines here and then let’s talk about how this looks for you.
Shouldn’t I wait to walk my puppy until they’ve had all their shots?
No!!! Please. For the love of doG please do not delay socialisation until they are 12-16 weeks. That would be counterproductive since the socialisation window closes between 12-14 weeks of age. Refresh your knowledge on Development in Puppies here. For a very long time, veterinarians, breeders, trainers, and the public, truly believed that it was safer to delay going outside until the puppy was fully vaccinated, but with science and research, we know better now.
The late, great R.K. Anderson, a well-respected Veterinary Behaviorist, is a pioneer in the field of socialisation in puppies and he recommended vehemently that we do not delay socialisation.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB – the body from whom veterinarians, behaviourists, and trainers take the lead) also strongly recommends not delaying socialisation.
If your breeder, veterinarian, trainer, family member, friend, or random person on the street recommends keeping your puppy isolated until they’re fully vaccinated, please share these two documents with them and insist that they research the most up-to-date information available on socialisation protocols for puppies.
How often should I walk my puppy?
It depends! If you live in a house with a yard, you might be able to get away with a handful of potty breaks in the yard and 3-4 short excursions a day. When puppies are young, I do try to prioritise socialisation (more on that later) so that it’s not delayed. If you live in a building, you’ll be going out almost hourly sometimes!
How long should a walk be?
Puppies need a lot of sleep and excursions can be exhausting. Stick to 5-15 minutes depending on what you’re doing. If you’re out running errands and doing playdates, obviously those will be longer. If you’re looking to do a short socialisation session, 5-15 minutes is just fine.
What if my puppy refuses to walk?
There’s no “what if” here. You’ll likely experience this when your puppy is 8-16 weeks of age. You’ll notice that your pup is hesitant at thresholds (doorways, driveway to sidewalk, etc) and you’ll notice that they randomly sit and refuse to move.
Whatever you do, do not pull, drag, or tug them along! This is counterproductive and teaches your dog that you are not the person to trust. Don’t bother luring or bribing with food either. If you’re in a rush and you need to get home now, scoop them up and carry them home. They’re not going to work on your schedule right now.
If you’re crossing a street and this happens, scoop your puppy up to finish crossing. Otherwise, I want you to experience the world through their eyes in that moment. Squat down beside them and look at what they’re taking in. Listen. What do you hear? Are there any vibrations in the ground? Your puppy is overwhelmed and overstimulated or just plain nervous. You can comfort them, speak softly to them, tell them what they’re experiencing (literally name the things – “there’s a truck!” or “hear that airplane?”). It sounds hokey but your soothing voice is often enough to let them know that they’re safe and these things are normal.
After a minute, stand up and try walking a few steps away, happy-talking to them. You might find that they happily trot along with you (until the next stopping session) or that they need another minute of the same thing.
Let your dog observe their world and learn about it at their pace. Don’t rush a puppy!
What if my puppy pulls on leash?
Heads up! Your puppy is going to pull on leash. If they don’t, I will likely suggest trouble-shooting with you as there may be some fear or other reason for hesitation.
Especially if you live in a busy environment with a lot of distractions, your puppy is going to want to pull towards people, dogs, birds, squirrels, garbage, sticks, you name it!
This is normal and expected.
What to do? There are two exercises to start sprinkling into your daily walks:
- Capturing any attention: if your puppy remembers you exist by looking in your direction, make a fuss! Praise lavishly and feed a treat or two at the seam of your pants – the spot where your puppy’s nose meets it when they’re standing, not jumping. Doing this often will encourage your puppy to keep visually connecting with you. This might be the most amazing tip you’ll ever receive in your dog’s life and that’s not an understatement. This builds focus and attention quite passively (without asking for eye contact). This is called “feeding in position”.
- Just like you wouldn’t allow your toddler to drag you towards broken glass or traffic, you simply don’t allow a dog to pull you towards the same. The leash is your seatbelt – but it’s not your steering wheel. You will, over time, teach your puppy that walking without pulling is most rewarding, however for now, you will simply manage as best as you can. This does not mean a tight leash or a short leash – this can cause more frustration – we just have to find the balance between control and freedom – allowing a little of each. Be patient and lenient until you’ve really put in the work!
What if my puppy is eating things off the ground?
Let me ask you a counter-question: if you were walking with a toddler and they kept picking up garbage, what would you do? You would walk in a way that avoids the garbage, keep their attention on you and other environmental distractions, you would physically prevent them from grabbing the items.
Is this more difficult with a puppy because they’re closer to the ground? Absolutely.
Strap on your treat pouch and start working on eye contact with your pup to keep their eyes and nose up when passing inevitable garbage.
If your pup gets something…
- Don’t make a fuss – just silently retrieve it and replace it with a treat immediately so it’s a fast trade-off and there’s no talking about it. This will prevent object-guarding and aggression later!
- Carry a little tug toy that you don’t mind getting mucky. This can not only keep their attention if used in short spurts and then tucked away, but it can also be helpful in replacing a retrieved object.
- Always be scanning the environment for garbage so you can simply prevent access with the leash (not popping the leash – simply not letting your pup pull you close enough to grab it).
- Practice “drop it” like it’s your job. There are few “cues” or “behaviours” I care about at this age. I don’t even teach “sit”! But…. drop it is a lifesaver and so important.
What if my puppy is afraid of people / sounds / dogs?
This is bound to happen! When a puppy is 5 weeks old, their startle reflex and the ability to experience fear develops. By the time they reach you at 8-9 weeks of age, it’s developed and they are likely to be hesitant or nervous around novelty. This is why socialisation is SO important – and I’m talking proper socialisation – NOT exposure. Don’t know the difference? Click here to find out.
If your puppy shows signs of fear (avoidance, startle with slow recovery, cowering, trembling, barking and backing up, showing teeth, growling, stiffness) you must jump into action fast.
- Happy-talk to your puppy, gently
- Provide a stream of 3-4 tiny treats in a row to associate with the scary thing
- Help them move away from the scary thing (NEVER get closer!)
- Don’t ask them to do anything (sit, look, leave it)
- Never punish them for showing signs of fear or growling
- Don’t allow the scary person/dog/thing to get closer to them – get distance and work where your puppy feels safe.
Click here to learn how to change your dog’s emotional response to stimuli. It’s a key skill that you’ll be using throughout their entire life, so get good at it!
What gear should I use for my puppy?
Puppies are delicate creatures, just like babies. It’s often tempting to use a collar around the neck as that was the norm for so many years, however we know now that collars can do significant damage to the neck (oesophagus, trachea, thyroid, spine, eyes, ligaments, etc…). The recommendation for a back-clipping harness that allows full range of motion, is strong.
Just like you wouldn’t put something around a child’s neck, we shouldn’t put anything around a puppy’s neck. When they are fully grown and are trained to walk on leash without pulling, a collar is okay, however, one quick lunge on a collar can cause whiplash and many other injuries that are unseen.
Always use a flat leash. A retractable leash will not only teach your puppy to pull and dart in all directions, but these cause upwards of 6700 amputations per year (this stat is from 2007, so imagine what that number is now, with the increase in dog guardianship!). A nylon, leather, or cotton lead that is anywhere from 6′ to 12′ is perfectly fine and the safest option.