When we imagine having a dog, we probably consider lots of fun aspects of pet ownership. This may include playing with them, cuddling with them, even the excitement in their cute little faces as they ask for a treat.
But a big part of pet ownership is also taking that pup for a walk. This is about more than exercise for your dog — for both of you! — but also fresh air, keeping them mentally stimulated, socializing, and, of course, helping to avoid boredom. It’s also an amazing bonding experience for both you and the pup, and just may help to tire them out in time for nap time.
Pups get so excited walking in new environments and sniffing new smells, and perhaps even running into a favorite pup friend along the way. But, of course, depending on the dog’s age, fitness, and health, there’s some special considerations that should go dog walking, from puppies until adulthood, and even senior dogs. We talked to vets, trainers, and pet experts about the ins and outs of walking your dog.
Getting a new puppy is almost like having a new baby in the house. They are starting everything from scratch and are a fresh canvas. That means training, bonding, and a whole lot of love and excitement. They don’t just need to learn where to use the bathroom or how to behave, but even where to walk and how to behave on those walks... and you’ll have to start slowly.
Of course, the youngest of pups may not be yet ready once they come into your house. Especially if they haven’t gotten all their shots yet. “Puppy owners should defer to their vet on when it is safe to begin walking their dog — your vet can recommend a safe time based on vaccine status,” says Kimberly Archer, a dog behavior technician at Courteous Canine Inc., force-free dog behavior and training facility in Lutz, Florida. This is often around 16 weeks, but can vary pretty widely depending on the area you live in and your particular vet. Start with shorter walks, perhaps around the yard or to the end of the block, and then work up. You don’t want to over-exercise the puppy because too much too soon can lead to injury.
Talk to a vet about any new puppy issues, big or small.
Take caution before taking that new pup out in crowded areas that may be filled with unvaccinated dogs (such as dog parks, pet stores, or popular trails) if your new baby pup has not completed their vaccinations. However: “Because puppies have a window of opportunity to introduce them to new environments, sounds, textures, objects, people, and animals between about 6 and 14 weeks (their prime socialization period), it’s also imperative that they get to experience these things in the safest way possible them become comfortable in coping with new or different experiences as they age,” says Erin Askeland, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA, Camp Bow Wow's lead Animal Health & Behavior Consultant.
The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior’s position on socialization prior to full vaccination is that “… [they] recommend that owners take advantage of every safe opportunity to expose young puppies to the great variety of stimuli that they will experience in their lives,” and that there are measures and precautions that can be taken to minimize risk. “Practicing walking and becoming comfortable on leash is also an important component of this socialization process because most dogs will need to be leashed throughout their life for walks, vet visits, travel, etc.,” says Askeland, who says for puppies who are not yet fully vaccinated, you can practice walking in your own yard and home to help get used to the leash and this form of activity. Then, once fully vaccinated, you can move on to your neighborhood, local parks, and other spaces where dog walking is common.
“The general rule is to follow the ratio of five minutes of exercise per month of age, at least twice a day until a dog reaches maturity,” says Dr. Sabrina Kong DVM, veterinary writer at WeLoveDoodles. So for instance, if a puppy is 4 months, they should be taken outside for 20 minutes, with 5 months, 25 minutes. “Once they reach maturity, they can go on longer walks depending on the breed,” says Dr. Kong.
According to Askeland, shorter, more frequent walks may be better for a puppy as they are still growing and developing, and this also depends on your house-training schedule and whether walks are part of the house-training routine. (One example, says Askeland, is if you live in an apartment and have to rely on walks for potty training). “Depending on the breed and size, puppies may be fully grown by 6 months, but larger breeds can keep growing until nearly 2 years old, so it’s important to discuss activity level with your vet to find out what’s appropriate based on your dog,” says Askeland.
Duration, frequency, and intensity of walks should be based on a specific dog's characteristics and preferences. “Dogs that enjoy walks and are able to be safely walked without practicing dangerous behaviors (such as reactivity to other dogs) can be taken on walks frequently whereas a brachycephalic dog (with a squished face and nose) should only be taken on short walks due to their trouble breathing,” says Archer.
This is all going to depend on the dog’s health and endurance, much like with a smaller puppy. “For senior dogs that are able to safely walk (per their veterinarian's clearance), walks can be a great way to enrich their lives! If your dog is too old to run and play, walks can allow them to explore an interesting environment,” says Archer.
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The time/distance spent will depend on the dog's age, overall health, energy level, breed, walking location, and ambient temperature. “On warm or hot days, brachycephalic dogs might need to go for shorter, more frequent walks, versus longer runs,” says Joan Hunter Mayer, certified professional dog trainer, owner of The Inquisitive Canine, who says herding dogs might be able to go for miles — which means, the length of the walk will also depend on their guardian’s energy level and available time.
The length of a walk should depend largely on your dog's health and stamina and the weather. “A walk with a pug in the middle of summer may be 10 minutes, vastly different from the possible three-hour walk with a husky in the winter,” says Archer.
There are many different types of leashes and harnesses on the market to choose from, and different dogs will fit better into each type. However, as a general guide: “A good harness will be padded and adjustable to fit your dog’s shape,” says Askeland. It should not rub, slip, or enable a dog to easily come out of it while walking.
Askeland says that clips for leash attachment should also be sturdy and attached well to the harness. “I’ve seen too many cheap harnesses break at the leash attachment because they got excited and pulled hard,” says Askeland.
As for leashes? “Leashes should be about 6-feet long to provide enough room to maneuver without getting too far away from you,” says Askeland. “Avoid flexi-leashes (retractable) for general walking as these can be easy to drop and don’t do a good job of teaching your dog how much room they have to maneuver as the length changes frequently.” These leashes also tangle easily (though there is a place for them for different parts of training).
Those who dog sit and take dogs to walk as part of their job have specific guidelines on this end. “At Trusted Housesitters, we always recommend owners provide a harness for their dogs — especially when a sitter is coming!” says Angela Law, Trusted Housesitters' Social Media & Community Manager. Harnesses prevent pressure on the neck if your pup is a puller, and essentially eradicates the risk of a dog slipping out of the walker’s control. “On top of harnesses, we also recommend that your dog wears a collar with their owner's ID and the pet’s license tag — it's like us bringing our wallet with us!” says Law.
As for choosing a leash or harness, you want one that will help you maintain control but won’t scare the dog or make them uncomfortable or anxious. “I always recommend the 2 Hounds Design Freedom No Pull Harness with a double attached leash,” says Archer. This harness and leash are a great duo as they help to evenly distribute leash pressure onto the dog. “This helps to keep them protected from hurting themselves, avoids the stress that pulling on a collar can cause, and also gives the walker more stability and control so they're able to safely handle the dog!” says Archer. Be sure to use the double attached leash as you need to hook the leash to both the chest attachment and back attachment in order to get all of the benefits from this harness.
Adding a harness to your dog’s walk routine should be step one! “Harnesses take pressure off of the neck and keep your dog safer and more comfortable, even if the pulling continues,” says Law.
Pulling might indicate that your dog might be extra excited for their walk, says Law, so this might be an indication of requiring more walks per day. Learning to walk comfortably, for you and your dog, requires practice and patience — but it’s never too late to learn. “If this becomes a persistent problem and you feel out of control on walks then it is worth asking the advice of a professional trainer,” says Law. Walks should be a safe enjoyable experience for both of you and anyone caring for your dog.
The most important thing is to figure out why your dog is refusing to walk. Are they scared? Tired? Sick? Anxious? Bored? “Once you figure out a dog's reasoning for avoiding things you can use empathy and creativity to figure out an appropriate way to motivate them,” says Archer.
A “food test” can be helpful when trying to figure out if the dog is not feeling well or not, according to Mayer. “Refusing to eat can sometimes mean he or she is physically ill or scared — animals (humans too) don’t often want to eat when they’re scared or sick,” says Mayer.
If the dog is just planting feet because he or she is bored, then increase the motivation. “Use treats to prompt them along and make it a game — use their regular food, giving them part of their meal on-the-road,” says Mayer.
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Of course, we all know to take our dogs for walks, but there’s a few important considerations and safety checks to keep in mind along the way.
Dogs love positive reinforcement, and that’s why it’s important to have treats handy. “Bring something extra delicious and juicy like shredded chicken and give them a bit each time they offer desirable behaviors like eye contact and staying close to you,” says Archer. This will not only make the current walk easier but also future walks!
Avoid scaring or stressing a dog at all times. “Don't use a retractable leash, prong collar, or choke chain as these may seem helpful at the moment but will ultimately cause your dog confusion and stress,” says Archer.
It’s also important to consider weather conditions — if temperatures are high, consider walking early in the morning or late in the evening. “You can also utilize the 5-second rule – Place the back of your hand on the pavement,” says Law. “If you cannot hold it for five seconds, it's too hot to walk your dog and there are certain breeds, including brachycephalic or flat-faced breeds that require cooler temps for walking.”
“With winter approaching, be sure to walk your dog when temperatures are highest, for those continuing to work from home, mid-day is ideal,” says Law. Should your dog need extra protection against the elements a well-fitting dog coat will give added comfort and protection.
The time of day you go for that walk will have an impact on the experience, regardless of weather conditions. “Even the best treats and harness may not be enough at 6 pm when everyone is out walking their dog, so take them out an hour later than the rest of the neighborhood does,” says Archer.
It's always worth giving your dog a "sound" check after walking, especially if you have been through fields, wooded areas, or unfamiliar areas. “Don't want fleas or ticks to disrupt a wonderful walk,” says Law.