The first few weeks after you bring a new puppy home are the most important weeks of his life. So, if you want to turn that puppy into an adventure dog, you’ll need to take him on an adventure during that time. My girlfriend, Virginia, and I just did that with our new puppy, Bowie. Here’s how you can do the same.
The Crucial First Weeks
From about three weeks old to three months, a dog learns its place in the world. Puppies are like a sponge, soaking up the experiences that will define their personality. Things they successfully encounter during this socialization period are things they will be comfortable and confident encountering for the rest of their lives.
You want your dog to be cool around kids, so you introduce them to kids. You want your dog to enjoy riding in the car, so you take him for car rides. You don’t want your dog to have food aggression, so you pet him while he’s eating. Everyone knows that stuff, but not everyone includes basic outdoor activities in that list. I think they should.
My four-year-old mutt, Wiley, is as good a companion in the outdoors as you could hope for. On long backpacking trips, I rarely have to give him any sort of command, and he can be relied on to help guide my friends and defend them from weirdos and wild animals. Wiley’s never happier than when he’s sleeping next to a campfire. Why is that? It’s not something innate—it’s because I started taking him camping when he was just 11 weeks old.
We’ve had Bowie two and a half weeks now. We’ve yet to get a full night’s sleep since he arrived, but we have remained committed to exposing him to as many new experiences as possible. Bowie’s been on a road trip, he’s been to nice restaurants, and we let everyone who expresses interest pet and handle him.
The morning before the camping trip, we were getting a coffee at my local cafe when the barista asked if he could take a photo of Bowie to show his girlfriend. I told him to hold the pup so I could snap a photo of him with Bowie. While I did, I explained it was a good experience for the dog and told him we were about to take Bowie camping.
“I get it,” the barista said. “It’s hard work now, but it pays off for the rest of the dog’s life.”
Socialization Versus Safety
Puppies don’t typically finish their initial series of inoculations at the vet until they’re 16 weeks old. Until then, they’re vulnerable to a number of diseases that can be caught from exposure to other dogs, their feces and urine, and even mosquitoes.
Because of this risk, many vets and other experts recommend keeping puppies at home until they’re four months old.
I’m not a vet, and I’m not a dog expert. I’m just some guy on the internet who likes dogs more than people. You should talk to your vet about socialization and practical risk management for your puppy, and no matter what you decide to do, you should play things safe.
It’s my opinion that the value of a broad-reaching plan of socialization outweighs the risk of exposing your puppy to the world. In combination with an ongoing program of training, the socialization period is critical to building the dog you want.
In addition to disease, your puppy faces other risks by going out into the world at such a young age. These range from physical threats posed by the environment and other animals to long-term health issues that can be created by too much exercise too early. Let’s look at them and detail how you can take practical safety precautions.
Mean Dogs: This young, your puppy won’t know the ins and outs of dog politics. We often joke that Wiley considers himself king of the dogs. He’s friendly but demands fealty from other dogs he encounters. If they challenge his supremacy, other dogs are taught a relatively friendly lesson in might makes right. And yet Bowie’s favorite thing to do is to run up to a sleeping Wiley, bark in his face, and bite his ears. That would probably be a death sentence for a full-grown dog, but because Bowie is a part of our family, and a puppy, he’s granted a stay of execution. What if Bowie did that to another large, dangerous dog who wasn’t as indulgent of puppy behavior? This small and young, the damage would be significant, if not worse.
Wild Animals: Scouting campsites during our short backpacking trip, I walked off-trail through some tall grass and nearly stepped on a big rattlesnake. In fact, the only reason I didn’t step on it is because Wiley jumped in front of me, went into guard dog mode, and physically prevented me from taking that next step. He’d likely survive a snake bite. A puppy wouldn’t.
Later that night, after dark, I spotted a large black bear walking up the riverbed toward our campsite. The bear was downwind, so he could smell us, but Wiley couldn’t smell the bear. I put Wiley on a leash, made sure Virginia had a hand on both dogs, then went to chase the bear off. Forty yards from the campfire, the bear stopped, looked at me, and refused to budge, despite my hooting and hollering. Five yards from the bear, I figured it was too accustomed to humans for my liking, so I fired my Glock in the air twice, right over his head. We didn’t see that bear again for the rest of the trip.
My big concern, though, was coyotes. Here in California, they’re known to hunt small dogs for food. Coyotes are as much a presence outside my home in Hollywood as they are up in the mountains.
Hazardous Plants: Puppies don’t yet have thickly calloused paw pads, so they can easily run into problems by walking on or through thorny plants. Foxtail grass, present across the American West, is a hazard to all dogs. Its barbs can work their way into an animal’s ears, nose, eyes, genitals, and toes and cause infections so bad that they’ve killed adult dogs. Be aware of your local flora and what it can do to your pets.
Environmental Conditions: Extreme heat and cold, flowing water, slippery rocks, stuff they can fall from—the outdoors can be a dangerous place for anyone, let alone puppies. When Wiley was 11 weeks old, I took him camping in Big Sur, where he proceeded to run across slippery logs that had fallen over deep creek ravines and play on the beach, where a big wave swept him off his feet. No such incidents occurred with Bowie this weekend, probably because his mom is a better parent than I am.
It’s important to give your puppy the leeway to explore the world and learn his own limits, but you also have to keep him safe. Striking the right balance between the two will look different for every dog, and every dog owner. The compromise you end up achieving will be a large part of what defines your dog’s personality and your relationship with him.
Too Much Exercise: A puppy has seemingly inexhaustible energy, but believe it or not, conventional dog wisdom holds it that too much exercise, or too many miles, or too much duration can be harmful. And some very large pure breeds do have lifelong issues with joint health that can be exacerbated by long-duration exercise. The latest thinking, however, moves toward common sense. Develop an understanding of your puppy’s abilities and signs of fatigue, give him plenty of exercise, but stop when he gets worn out. Just like with people, regular exercise is less likely to result in an injured puppy than keeping your puppy sedentary during the week and then trying to exercise him significantly on weekends.
To avoid other people while trying to enjoy an easy camping trip in nearby mountains during a popular weekend, we hiked two miles from the trailhead, rather than spend the night in a campground. It was hot, but Bowie was totally fine with that distance. He had plenty of energy left to spend the evening chasing Wiley around camp. Afterward, he slept through nearly the entire night.
Leashes and When to Use Them
It’s well established that I am not a fan of keeping dogs on-leash while in the great outdoors. Dogs didn’t evolve specifically to live in symbiosis with humans just to be tied to a six-foot rope. And the socialization period is the best time for your dog to experience going off-leash in nature. As with all things puppy related, you just need to play it safe.
At a trailhead crowded with cars, people, horses, and other dogs, we kept both Wiley and Bowie on-leash until we were well into the trail. There, we hiked with leashes in hand in case there was a need to put them immediately back on. Even at 11 weeks, Bowie already knows some simple commands like “come” but is only reliable with them in the absence of distraction or too much energy. One thing he will do reliably, though, is follow Wiley around like a shadow. Wiley has a reliable recall and won’t go more than 100 yards from us while we’re hiking. So, I kept Wiley within 50 yards and let Bowie try to keep up.
Hiking is another great example of allowing puppies the freedom to explore and interact with a whole new world, but with the need to monitor them constantly and act instantly to remove them from danger should that present itself. Dogs read your emotions, so stay calm yet alert. Your puppy relies on your presence—he won’t go very far.
In camp, the same policy applies. We wanted Bowie to have the freedom to explore the riverbank and the tall reeds, and the frogs and lizards and birds, but we always made sure one of us kept him in sight and had shoes on should we need to run over and scoop him up. Camping is also a great opportunity to practice recall in a new environment and to play games like fetch that reinforce that relationship and those commands.
Hiking out the next morning, we didn’t feel the need to put Bowie on his leash until we got to the parking lot. The exercise and experience had improved his off-leash response that much, even in just one night.
What Big Dogs Can Teach Little Ones
Writing in Psychology Today, Stanley Coren confirms what many of us dog people already believed: Puppies learn by modeling the behavior of adult dogs. “Bringing a puppy into a house that already has an adult dog that has been trained greatly simplifies its training,” Coren writes. “The puppy learns to come when called by tagging along with the other dog.”
This weekend, Bowie learned how to be a good hiking companion by following Wiley. He learned to stay on trail, to turn back if I tell him he’s gotten too far ahead, and, hopefully, to leave the horse poop alone.
More important at this age, Bowie saw his role model being calm and confident outdoors, so he was calm and confident, too. Next to the fire is a great place to take a nap. The river is fun to splash around in when it’s hot out. Kids hopping in with you is a fun opportunity to play chase. Bears are something you should bark at, rattlesnakes are something you should stay away from, and gunfire isn’t cause for alarm. Bowie looks to Wiley to see what his reaction to a new thing should be, then mimics his behavior.
Creating the Perfect Adventure Dog
What Virginia wants from Bowie is a dog she can rely on like I can rely on Wiley. No matter where Wiley and I are, I can sleep soundly at night, safe in the knowledge that he’ll wake me up if there’s a problem. And if there is a problem, Wiley will have my back while we work together to resolve it, even if that means putting himself in harm’s way. Despite that tough-dog stuff, he’s calm and sweet around friendly humans and likes nothing better than crawling into the tent for a morning snuggle after a long night of keeping watch outside.
This weekend, Bowie didn’t just learn more about potty training, car trips (he’s already calmer on these rides than Wiley), and not barking at kids. He was also acclimated to spending time in the wilderness, to encountering wild animals, and to the expectations that will be placed on him, like sticking nearby on the trail and staying in camp after dark.
After over two weeks of sleepless nights, it was hard work putting in the drive and the hike and the general effort of taking a puppy camping, but those two days of hard work will pay off for the rest of Bowie’s life.
It’s experiences like this that make a good adventure dog.