You wanted a hiking buddy with lots of energy and that was always excited to go when you are so you got a puppy. You can’t wait to hit the trails with your new pup and introduce them to a life of adventure. But should you?
Puppies shouldn’t go on substantial hikes until their bodies have fully matured.
This article is about hiking with your puppy but the same information applies whether you want to go on long walks with your puppy, running with your puppy, or have your puppy participate in any kind of physical exercise.
So how old should your puppy be before they start hiking?
At What Age is it Safe for Puppies to Hike?
Your young, sprightly pup is full of energy, and sure to be your closest adventure buddy in years to come. But don’t head to the trails just yet – long and steep hikes are not suitable for young puppies.
You need to take into consideration your pup’s age, size, breed and health before you start going on those big adventures.
In your pup’s first year of life, their limbs will grow longer. While your pup is still growing, they’re at risk for growth plate injuries.
Growth plates are soft regions at the end of your pup’s bones that harden as they finish growing. These growth plates are vulnerable to damage from over-exercise and trauma.
The exact age at which your dog is ready for intense hikes will vary.
Growth plate injuries that occur before your pup is eight months old tend to be the most devastating, and may result in deformities that require surgery. Dogs are vulnerable as long as they are still growing, which can be one year old for small dogs, and 18 months for large dogs.
It’s best to ask for your veterinarian’s professional opinion on when your puppy is ready to hike.
What You Should Know About Growth Plate Injuries
Growth plate injuries can be acute – caused by some kind of trauma – while chronic injuries are caused by long-term strain on the joints. Besides hiking, they can also suffer growth plate injuries from normal activities like playing, going up or down stairs, and jumping off furniture.
Signs of bone growth plate injuries include swelling, pain, limping, stiffness and abnormal growth. These are good to know even if you don’t take your puppy on long hikes.
You’ll need to see your vet about any mild symptoms that last longer than a few hours, or immediately in cases of trauma or severe pain.
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.
The general rule is 5 minutes of walking per month of age up to twice a day.
So, for example, a 4 month old puppy could walk up to 20 minutes twice a day.
That rule is for pretty easy walks around the neighborhood though. I know most people who hike are itching to take their puppies out on the trail right away.
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.
However, that kind of terrain can be more difficult for a puppy so you may want to cut the “time rule” above in 3/4 or 1/2. In other words, that same 4 month old puppy would start out with only 10-15 minutes on a “trail”.
Avoid difficult terrains, and lift your puppy in and out of the car (don’t let them jump out on their own).
As your puppy approaches a year of age, you can begin taking them on shorter “real hikes”. The general time limit still applies but the older your puppy, the further you can go.
A 12 month old puppy can hike around 60 minutes at a time, which is usually enough to cover 2-3 miles.
Take frequent breaks, even if your dog doesn’t seem tired, and look for signs that they’ve hiked too far – but aim to stop long before that point.
Be aware that you don’t only have to worry about growth plate injuries.
Overexertion, dehydration, heat stroke and muscle tears are all possible side effects of hiking, especially if you don’t gradually work your way up to long hikes in rough terrain.
In The Meantime, Prepare for Hiking by Training Your Pup
While your pup is still growing, you can focus on training so they’ll be well mannered for their first hike as a grown dog.
This will give YOU something to focus on too so you aren’t tempted to push them too far too fast.
Essential training skills your pup should know before hiking include:
Walking on a loose leash
An excited young dog can spoil a hike by constantly pulling ahead.
Start in a low-distraction environment like your backyard, and focus on getting your dog to walk by your side. You can use the Silky Leash Method, stopping when your dog pulls, then rewarding them when they leave slack on the leash by giving them a treat or picking up the speed.
Not grabbing everything they find
There’s lots of cool finds on hiking trails – sticks, leaves, abandoned snack food, poop, dead animals – some of which can make your dog sick if they’re not trained to leave it.
A strong recall
It’s safest to keep your dog on a 6-foot leash when hiking. However, your dog, for various reasons may not always be attached to you.
They can slip out of their harness. The leash could break. Or, you may even eventually want to allow your dog off-leash in safe areas where dogs are permitted to be loose.
In the meantime, practice recall every day until your dog responds to your whistle or call, even in high-distraction areas.
Politely greeting other dogs
It’s not necessary to let your dog say hello to every other dog you see on the trail. But you’re inevitably going to run into off-leash dogs, so it’s good to socialize your puppy so they’re comfortable with random greetings.
When your dog is on leash but the other dog is not, it can be stressful because your dog has no choice but to have another dog in their face.
Keep meetings brief and attempt to keep your dog’s focus on you. It’s more important to be comfortable than for them to learn they must tolerate situations that stress them out.
If you have a little patience, and focus on light exercise and training while they are still a puppy, you’ll have a fit and well mannered trail dog in no time.