The day has arrived when you can finally take your new puppy out for its first walk. For pet parents, this pretty much equates to sending your (human) child to school on their first day. You step out into the world together all excited to introduce them to life outside your home… they take a step forward… and then the breaks go on.
Before you become a pet parent for the first time, you’d probably heard stories of dogs who can’t hear the ‘walkies’ word without losing their mind – whose owners have to spell out ‘w-a-l-k’ to each other to maintain calmness until the leads and harnesses are ready to put on. So why is your puppy here glued to the spot, not loving every second of heading out the front door?
Although I’d worked with hundreds of puppies who found their first walks difficult, it wasn’t until Chester entered our world that I had any first-hand experience of this. Every day we’d head out the door, take a couple of steps out onto the driveway and then his heels would dig in – and if you know Bassets, there is no moving a Basset that doesn’t want to be moved! It actually was quite a surprise to me that we were having this challenge. I’d set him up for success – taking him out in our arms for very small short, positive interactions with the world. We’d introduced the harness slowly so he was comfortable having it put on. We’d completed small lead walks around the garden, getting him used the weight of a lead hanging above him. We’d played games on the driveway. But still, this boy of mine was not moving.
Why is it that some puppies really struggle to get the joy of walks from day one?
Well, let’s take a walk with our puppy…
You open the front door. Now imagine this is you and when that door opens 1000 business cards are thrown in your face – or perhaps it’s that scene from Notting Hill with all the press outside their front door. Now think of what your puppy is met with – the scent of hundreds of dogs to start with – then add to it traffic, noise, people, bins banging, the list goes on. The walk starts off pretty terrifying.
What’s this around my neck? Do you remember the first time you had to wear a tie for school or work, or even a shirt buttoned up to the top – was that fun? Now imagine you’re being pulled along by it. Or perhaps your dog is wearing a harness? Then liken this to wearing a bra for the first time – aren’t you eager to take it off at the end of the day?
So we’re starting off and we’re already a little overwhelmed by the sight, sounds, and smells of the world. We’re feeling a little uncomfortable in our new walking equipment.
Then perhaps it starts to rain. Not only are we cold, wet, and have odd sensations all over our body – but all the sounds of the world suddenly have their volume turned up to ten. And those smells? They just got stronger.
Your human is getting frustrated with you and starting to pull on the lead. We now feel trapped and unable to make our own choices. Where has their love and support gone?
We move up the street and a loud lorry passes by. Then we go past a school playground – it’s break time and there are lots of screaming kids. Ten people stop to meet me – their hands are very big when they reach over my head. Someone slams their car door shut, that was pretty scary. A dog rushes up to me, I think to be friendly but I’m not sure about reading all dogs yet. We turn a corner and it smells familiar. I think we’re going back to that safe, warm place. My humans call it home. I feel relief, I start to run – now it’s my turn to pull my human along!
If you experience these first walks as your puppy, you can start to understand why they might not be so excited to move forward. Why it might take some time to build up their confidence. So, how do we manage to get our puppies to move? Do we drag them? Bribe them? Pick them up?
Let’s go back to my dog, Chester. Anytime Chester looked forward, leaned forward, or even looked up at me, I would use my clicker to mark him for it, then throw a piece of his favourite turkey in front of him. By throwing his treat forward, Chester was not only finding that forward steps bought good, positive things – but we were also making a small headway off the drive. We’d head out for only ten-fifteen minutes (sometimes less) and stick to quiet roads at first. We’d stop and do a little sniffing for food whenever there was some grass to scatter treats in. Most importantly, I wouldn’t drag him. I wouldn’t get frustrated. I knew this was just part of his growth.
When walking your puppy for the first time, don’t set yourself an agenda. Don’t plan to meet a friend at the park or expect to take a certain route. Be guided by your dog as to what they’re comfortable with. Loose lead walking can be practiced at home (and later on walks) but the most important thing in these first few weeks on outside walks, is that your dog doesn’t feel overwhelmed. That they learn to enjoy being outside of the home. Add variety to your week, sometimes driving them to a field for some fun off-lead play. Sometimes do some road walking. And if you feel your puppy has had a LOT of new experiences on one day, give him the next day off from the world.