The first few weeks of a dog's life are crucial. Starting from about 3 weeks old to 3 months is when a puppy learns about his place in the world. Puppies are like sponges; they soak up all the experiences that will come to define their personalities. It is key to note that the things your puppy successfully encounters during this time are the things he will be most comfortable and confident with. So, if you want your dog to be comfortable with outdoor activities, you should get him started early.
Health and Safety First!
Before you rush outdoors with your new pup, keep in mind that puppies usually finish their first series of inoculations until they reach 16 weeks old, and until then they can be susceptible to a number of diseases caught from other dogs and even mosquitos, not to mention other animals. Due to this risk, many experts recommend keeping puppies at home until they are 4 months old. Make sure you talk with your vet about what's best and safest for your puppy ahead of taking him out.
In any event, it's best to take it slow and introduce your dog gradually to the outdoors and outdoor activities. What activities are safe for puppies? Hiking, fence-running, agility, and even playing with older dogs can be considered “forced exercise” because your puppy may overexert itself trying to keep up. When your puppy is still growing, it’s best to stick to activities that do not exceed the exercise level they would get from playing with other puppies. Therefore, a few laps around your local park, or a brief walk in a wooded area, can be good ways to introduce your puppy to the concept of hiking without much risk. Avoid difficult terrains, and lift your puppy in and out of the car. When your puppy gets closer to a year in age, then you can introduce him to very brief hikes. Make sure you take a lot of breaks, even if your dog doesn't seem tired. It's a good idea to stop long before he does get tired.
However, before your puppy is a year old and able to start hiking and camping with you, albeit for short periods, you can focus on training so he will be well prepared. Some essential training skills your puppy should know are:
- Walking on a loose leash - Start walking your dog in a low distraction environment, like your backyard. Focus on getting him to walk by your side, and rewarding them when they leave slack on the leash. If he pulls his leash, stop immediately.
- Not grabbing everything they find - Once your dog does go hiking with you, he'll find a lot of cool things like sticks, leaves, flowers, abandoned snacks, dead animals, etc. Many of these, if not all can make your dog sick. Training your dog to leave things alone by command will go a long way in making the hike smooth.
- A strong recall - Keeping your dog on a 6 foot leash while hiking is a good idea, but dogs can slip out of leashes. A leash could also break. If you've trained your dog to come back to you when you call or whistle, he will be safe. You might also want to eventually allow your dog to be off leash in areas that permit it, and a strong recall will bring him back to you when you want him to.
- Politely greeting other dogs - Your dog doesn't need to say hello to every other dog he meets. But you will inevitably run into other dogs, and some of them will be off leash when you're out hiking or camping. So it's good to socialize your puppy, making him comfortable with random greetings.
There is a lot of value to socializing your puppy, as well as the risks that come with it. While training is important, it is equally important to have a socialization plan. And pretty soon you'll have a hiking buddy with a ton of energy, who's always excited to be on the go with you. With the right training and a gradual introduction to the outdoors, your puppy will be fully prepared for a life of adventure with you.