Why do we do puppy walks?
Aside from the fact that it’s fun (obviously) there are some huge benefits to letting our little nuggets run around untethered in all their crazy glory.
I first learned about free play when I started mushing at age 14. I was working with Martin Buser, one of the greatest dog people I’ve ever met. My training started in the fall, and it started with free play. Every day, we’d load up about 20 dogs into a dog truck and take them to some big abandoned airstrips, where we’d park and let them loose. It was crazy and it was the coolest thing ever. The dogs would run, socialize, take off in huge packs, learn recall, and work out their issues with each other. It was happiness unleashed. Pun intended.
While I worked with Martin, I also learned about puppy walks– the smaller version of this. Usually this was manifested by taking a litter of pups from their pen on a free walk on the trails around Martin’s. These days, I load my cute little nuggets into my Subaru and drive about a mile away to a quiet, mostly abandoned dirt road to walk by fields, forests, and trees covered in lichen.
Free play in general is one of the most beneficial thing for dogs, I believe, but I’m going to mention here why we take the pups out every single day on walks.
1. The Learning Curve
The pups, at 10 weeks old, are in the “Socialization Period.” Here’s an excerpt that does a good job explaining this time period:
It is at this age that rapid learning occurs. At seven [to twelve] weeks, puppies can learn and what they learn will have a lasting impact. Everything he comes in contact with will make a lasting impression upon him as it never will again. Not only will he learn, but, he will learn whether he is taught or not. Though he has a short attention span, what things he
learns are learned permanently and resistant to change. – “Training Puppies to Stock Dogs”
This means it’s a great time to introduce the pups to a variety of experiences and challenges, as well as giving them a ton of positive reinforcement for their accomplishments. Things we try to encounter and overcome include water obstacles (puddles!), logs to crawl over, and getting in and out of the car. Later we’ll try to locate some other exciting areas to free walk that may up the challenge! Currently we’re sticking to that roadway; after a week or so they are conquering it with ease!
All of the challenges that they face will help them be better developed and ready for whatever challenges the trail might produce. As Martin talks about frequently, if they can jump over a log on a free run, they’ll be more ready to overcome that obstacle on the trail. Or, even cooler, if you do come to an obstacle your team and sled can’t get over on the trail, you can unhook your team with full confidence that they know to stick around, get the sled over, and then hook back up on the other side.
Husky pups need to stretch their legs! It’s way too early to put them in harness (although a tiny set of harnesses and a miniature sled would be cute– and probably not go in a forward direction, ha). Running around chasing poor beleaguered Hooch Bean gives the pups a good amount of stimulation and exercise. There’s nothing that makes me happier than seeing a dog or pup having a good hard nap after a satisfying day of fun. You know you’ve done right by your four legged buddy when they are curled up and sleeping contentedly.
3. Recall and a Sense of Pack
Sled dogs are group animals. They understand who their family is– whether that’s born or made. Taking the pups on these walks helps them gel with each other and Hooch, and bond with me (and Shawn!). Bonny is so far a bit crabby with the pups so she’s only gone on a few walks with us, but as they get less annoying to her, she’ll be there too. As soon as Ophelia is off the glacier, she’ll be in the mix as well. My Subaru is getting smaller and smaller!!!
With the pups I work on recall during our walks. High pitched, happy calls of “pup pup pup pup!” result in perked ears and running feet. I use kibble for “treats” and give some to each dog and repeat their names. The Star Wars pups are especially motivated by food, which is useful when I need them to gather close to let an occasional car or four wheeler to pass, or to come back into their pen when we get home. I also work with the pups one by one, teaching them their names, offering lots of attention and a couple kibbles for coming over for a visit, and associating good words with tasty treats and pets and love.
As our sense of togetherness grows, we’ll embark on other journeys, through woods, swamps, fields, and even into the river for some swimming lessons. All of these things will help the pups’ sense that they can conquer obstacles, but it will also teach them that we are pack, that we travel together.
All of the work I do with these young pups is most of all to engender a sense of trust in them for me. Trust is the best gift you can give your dog: trust that you will feed them, defend them, shelter them, and love them. Those things can be conveyed at home, but embarking on adventures together enforces this so deeply. We go out into the world and together we have great success! It’s all about making that a positive experience, something we did together, and part of the promise that I make to those animals in my care. Trust, exercise, and affirmation give all of us in our little pack a sense of rightness, of purpose, and of satisfaction.
To me, that is happiness.