Sunday, January 31, 2016

What to do with a puppy too young to run yet?

I have had lots of people contact me lately that have younger dogs, dogs not ready to start their running yet.  They need things to do with their dogs for the first year and they want to learn.  I LOVE helping people with their dogs, because a happy dog and owner is one less dog in a shelter or rescue.  So what do you do with a puppy that is not old enough to run yet, and what is the appropriate age to start running with a puppy?
In doing research to help people with an appropriate answer, I came across several really great websites.  This one here called Jane Killion's Puppy Culture makes several great points about puppies.  Rather than me paraphrase, I want to copy the info she presented here with all credit going straight to her and her research:

The first consideration with puppy exercise is something called “growth plates.”  Growth plates are soft areas that sit at the ends of the long bones in puppies and young dogs.  They contain rapidly dividing cells that allow bones to become longer until the end of puberty. Growth plates gradually thin as hormonal changes approaching puberty signal the growth plates to close.  In puppies, this closure is normally completed by approximately 18 months old.

Until the growth plates close, they’re soft and vulnerable to injury.  After sexual maturity, the growth plates calcify and the rapid cell division ends.  The growth plate becomes a stable, inactive, part of the bone, now known as an epiphyseal line.

A dog’s bones are held together with muscles, tendons, and ligaments - soft tissue.  In an adult dog, if a joint experiences a stress such as bending the wrong way or rotating too much, the bones will hold firm and a soft tissue will be pulled, resulting in a sprain.  In a puppy, however, his muscles, ligaments and tendons are stronger than his growth plates, so instead of a simple sprain, his growth plate is liable to be injured - the puppy’s own soft tissue can pull apart his growth plate.

Why this matters so much is that, unlike a sprain, injuries to the growth plate may not heal properly or not heal in time for the puppy to grow up straight and strong.  Injury to a growth plate can result in a misshapen or shortened limb which, in turn, can create an incorrect angle to a joint which can make the puppy more prone to yet more injuries when he grows up.

What this means is exactly what it states.  If you start running with your puppy too much and too soon, you could possibly cause major long term damage to your pup.  So what can we do in the mean time?

I recommend all puppy owners find a local class with their pup that has reputable trainers, not just someone who completed an in store training class, but someone with credeintials.  Someone with certifications that uses positive reinforcements and small class sizes.  Someone who understands that puppies,  just like kids, need lots of play time with little bits of training interspersed.  That can be a once a week class or twice a week, and should include lots of fun homework. 

I really love classes that give a free clicker and introduce the owners to clicker training and positive reinforcement.  We are very lucky to have that here in Manhattan with Mutt School and Mary Hager/Nadja Peery.  Clicker training is just a way to mark the behavior with an audible noise or click and reward.  The dog pairs the sound of the noise with doing something right and getting a yummy treat.  Later you can move to a schedule of random reinforcment, but that is a topic for a whole another blog post :)

I also believe in doing lots of trick training (Mutt School teaches a clicker trick training class that I have taken and LOVE) and core/body proprioception exercises utilizing tools like the peanut and the balance disk.  As with all of my training, the sessions are short and to the point with lots of yummy treats and lots of positive reinforcement.  I like to do puppy sessions in the least stimulating environment as possible ,so all of the focus is on me and the yummy treats.  Sometimes with a new puppy or dog, you may have to make a list of the most reinforcing object or treat. For some dogs, kibble is awesome or hot dogs or even steak.  For others it is a tug session or the beloved tennis ball.  Play around and figure out what is the top of your dog's reinforcement list.  
There are also lots of classes/sports you can start with a younger dog/puppy.  Nose work is very popular now and has little to no impact, as well as rally obedience and classical obedience.  The skills that you learn from these sports will help you later on with running and with higher impact sports like agility and disc dog.  Again we are very blessed in Manhattan to have a disc dog group called Prairie Disc Dog MHK and agility classes like out at Deep Creek Agility.    You can always take beginner classes in all of these sports, but most training groups have a minimum age, usually based on safety and also length of attention span.  
So as you can see, there are tons you can do with your puppies before they are old enough to run.  Now a days even if you don't have a great trainer in your area, you can find online classes for you and your pup where you can watch videos, video your sessions and email them to the intructor for feedback.  Here are a few of those websites that have trainers i absolutely love:

Karen Pryor Academy-scroll down to the bottom for classes not for just trainers
Agility University-several trick classes and performance puppy classes
Lolabuland-she has a whole list of classes just for puppies including trick and performance puppy classes
On Course Agility-puppy classes for performance puppies
Daisy Peel-Several classes from conditioning to foundation classes

I know I have listed several classes for performance puppies or agility, but in my opinion, they have some of the BEST foundation classes for puppies.  These are not just for doing agility, but for having a more well rounded dog.  I like the fact that you go at your own pace and that you aren't crammed into a space with several other dogs in a class, which can be quite distracting.  Distractions are good, don't get me wrong, but not when you are teaching behaviors at their rawest of forms.  
I wanted to end with a list of websites with more information on running with dogs and why running with puppies is not a good idea.  As always, consult with your vet if you are interested in any sports, including running, with your new pup.  They can be an excellent source of advice.  There are also many performance vets/rehab vets/chiropractors/Chinese medicine vets that can also give you great advice.  Always remember, you can't change genetics so if you are looking for a puppy with running in mind, look for breeders that do genetic testing for things like elbows and hip dysplasia and are very honest with you about these results.  Don't be afraid to ask the hard question of your breeders, this is a part of your family that will be with you for anywhere from 10-18  years dependent on breed.

How Soon Can a Dog Become a Jogging Partner
The Best Way to Run With Your Dog
At What Age Should You Run with Your Dog
Jogging with Your Dogs Improve Overall Fitness and Health

Hope this helps!  Please let me know if you have any comments or anything you would like to add!

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