Back in January, I got my new puppy, Kiely (Key-Lee). She was 11 weeks old when I picked her up from her breeder in Massachusetts. The following weekend she was out on the trails with the “big dogs.” There are a number of recommendations floating around the dog world on what you should and should not do when exercising your puppy. While it is easy to overdo things with a puppy, it is also easy to not do things out of fear. I believe in a “balanced” approach when it comes to exercising puppies. I do follow the “5 minutes of exercise per month of age” recommendation when I am working on “structured” exercise. There are not very many recommendations on “unstructured” exercise, which I am sure most dog owners have not even thought about. What is considered unstructured exercise? Why is unstructured exercise important? These are just a few questions I will discuss in this post.
What is the difference between structured and unstructured exercise?
Structured exercise is when you have specific goals for the session, such as: repetition goals, time goals, etc. This is when you set up a training session, and you attempt to meet all of your goals before you consider the session over. When I am doing this with my puppy, I follow the “5 minutes of exercise per month of age” recommendation. I should mentioned this recommendation is NOT based in science, but has become popular among breeders who use “Puppy Culture” rearing methods. This means when I first got Kiely at 11 weeks old (essentially 3 months old), her structured exercise and/or training sessions never went past 15 minutes. I even set a timer to ensure I did not go over time. I use this recommendation because it keeps me from over doing training sessions (even if they do not involve fitness work) with a young puppy. Puppies do not have very good attention spans. During structured exercise, I do not do any type of repetitive jump training, weave poles, running or anything that might compromise my puppy’s joints. I also follow the “wait until growth plates are closed” recommendation prior to focusing on that aspect of fitness or general dog training.
Unstructured exercise is where the dog gets to set the pace. They get to choose if they want to run, walk slowly, or even lay down if they feel so inclined. They chose to jump over a log, or go around it. Essentially, everything the puppy (or dog) does is their choice. You just make sure they do not run off or get into trouble. For the most part, unstructured exercise does not include any type of monitoring of time, distance, or repetitions. If you cannot measure it, it cannot be counted as structured exercise. I will digress. However, there are ways to measure unstructured exercise, such as GPS Tracking collars that my dogs wear when hiking. There are no distance, pace, or repetition goals. Another example of unstructured exercise would be when your puppy has the “zoomies” and is racing around your house like a crazy dog!
Why is it okay for your dog to do things during unstructured exercise that we discourage during structured exercise? The answer is, dogs do not naturally do things they are uncomfortable with or causes pain. However, a dog might “overdo it” or “push through” discomfort if a motivator is present (food reward or favorite toy). This is the reason why its okay for your puppy to jump over a log during unstructured exercise, but would be highly discouraged for a puppy to do during structured exercise. Since the dog makes the choices that they feel is best for him or her long distance is okay, if off leash. However, if the hike was performed on leash, that would become structured exercise. You control the distance and the pace. Another example of unstructured exercise is playing fetch in the backyard. Can you think of the reasons why? What are some other examples of unstructured exercise?
In case there is any question, my favorite unstructured exercise is Off-Leash Hiking with my dogs. I am lucky enough to have access to multiple, safe, private properties to hike with my dogs. All of my current dogs have hiked since they were younger than Kiely was when I first got her. Off-leash hiking not only provides great exercise for your dogs, it also provides so many opportunities for socialization and building body awareness. Just like human babies, puppies are mostly cartilage when they are young (this is why it is not recommended to do repetitive jump, weaving, or run training with puppies; damage to the cartilage growth plates can cause significant orthopedic issues as puppies grow). This means that toddling and tumbling over their world (at their own pace) is pretty safe to do. They are built for not getting injured by falling off of a low log or slipping down a small hill. In this process, they are learning how to use and work their bodies. When to speed up. When to slow down. When to jump and when to duck.
When my American Bulldog mix was around a year old, he was running around in the house and ended up putting a hole in the drywall with his head. That was not the only time Aidan crashed into the walls either. Guess who did not go hiking as a puppy? If your answer was Aidan, you are correct!!! Kiely is a Staffordshire Bull Terrier, with that stocky build and exuberance, I’ve been waiting for her to crash into a wall. So far, so good! She slows down well in advance and rarely loses her footing when gallivanting around the house with Trek. Kiely and her friend Amber, who is a week younger than Kiely, get together to play quite often and have both been hiking since they were tiny pups. I have video of Kiely running under our tractor and Amber slowing down enough to realize she cannot fit under the tractor like Kiely can. For most people, this would be considered a safety issue, but since I know Amber knows she cannot fit and will appropriately slow down, the tractor is just another object in the way of play time.
Many puppies also grow up always being in a fenced in yard and/or on leash. By utilizing off-leash hiking opportunities, being off-leash is not seen as novel as the puppy gets older. The most important part of off-leash hiking is doing so where it is safe and legal. Do not take your puppy off-leash hiking on public lands or anywhere there are leash laws. People often take their reactive, or non-friendly dogs, to places where leashes are required in an effort to not come across unleashed dogs. Be respectful! My dogs that have been off-leash hiking as puppies are pretty solid off-leash. They also tend not to bolt out the door when people come over. If they do meander out the door, they come back quickly and do not run amuck around the neighborhood. It is likely part of this is because of other training I do with my dogs, but I really do believe hiking with my dogs as puppies plays a big part in this.
Nature also provides a number of socialization opportunities. They get to experience new scents, sights, and substrates. If you go hiking with other people and their dogs, they also experience new people and dogs. Puppies’ prime socialization period is between 6-14 weeks old. This is when their brains are sponges. This is the perfect time to get them in the woods and let them soak up all of nature’s lessons.
All of these reasons are why I’m offering Puppy Hikes! My safe, private property has a number of trails, which are perfect for giving puppies an opportunity to exercise and learn what nature can teach them! Do you or someone you know have a puppy that could take advantage of this? Take a look at my website for more information: http://endlesspaws.net/puppy-hikes
Too Much of a Good Thing
Hiking is great for many reasons, but with puppies we do want to make sure we’re not over-doing it! Puppies under 18 months old should not hike more than two times a week. There should be at least two days between each hike to ensure the puppy has had enough rest and is not sore before their next hike. Tired or sore dogs are more likely to get injured and this is especially true for puppies.