By Webb and Leslie Anderson
Early agility training is a great way to exercise your young puppy’s mind and body. However, you must always be careful not to ask him to do anything that his body is not yet ready for. And remember that early agility training should be a game for puppy, lots of fun with no stress or pressure. By keeping your pup’s first experiences with agility safe and fun, you’ll be setting the stage for more productive agility training when he is an adult. Below is a list of some puppy-safe equipment training that you can do:
Tunnel: Puppies of all ages can enjoy the tunnel. Start with it perfectly straight and scrunched up so that puppy doesn’t have far to travel. Have someone hold him at the opening while you go to the other end and call him through, bending down so that he can see you through the tunnel. Calling him enthusiastically and praising him when he arrives will increase his speed through the tunnel (something you will need later on). If you don’t have access to a regulation tunnel, you can improvise with a large cardboard box that is open at both ends.
Chute: As with the tunnel, start with the chute fabric scrunched up all the way and lifted so that puppy can see you as he races through. You can gradually lengthen the fabric and eventually begin dropping it so that puppy has to push his way through the fabric to get to you. If you don’t have access to a regulation chute, you can make a “puppy chute” by cutting the bottom from a large, clean plastic garbage can and attaching a sheet or very light weight tarp to one end. Just make sure the chute is braced so that it will not roll with puppy in it. Also be careful not to allow puppy to get tangled in the fabric.
Dog Walk: Especially with larger breeds, like the Flat Coat, it is important to get your puppy accustomed to walking across a plank while the plank still seems wide to him. Begin with a plank resting directly on the ground and progress to having it raised off the ground a few inches. Cinderblocks work well for supporting and raising the plank slightly. As always, use lots of food and praise or toy rewards to encourage your pup.
See-Saw: After your puppy is proficient on the plank raised a few inches off t he ground, you can introduce an exercise that will eventually prepare him for the see-saw. At this point in your puppy’s training, the board should only move a couple of inches. You don’t want to scare him or throw him off balance. Place something small like a brick (not a cinderblock) under the middle of your plank. When your pup walks over the plank, it will descend a few inches before touching the ground. This helps get puppy used to having a board move under him when he crosses. Again, remember to control the board so that it only moves a few inches and hits the ground very softly. You don’t want your pup to be jarred or thrown off balance.
Weave Poles: Early weave pole training should be managed carefully to prevent injury to joints that are not yet fully developed. Negotiating a set of regulation weave poles requires, especially for large breeds like the Flat Coat, the dog to bend and flex his spine. For this reason, it is best not to train a young pup with repetitions on a fully up-right set of weaves. Start with poles that are offset from the center. As puppy matures, the poles can be pulled into alignment. As weave poles are often the most difficult obstacles to teach exposure to the poles should begin early. Make sure the poles are especially fun for your pup, so that he will always enjoy doing them.
Jumps: Jumping can be tough on growing bones and joints, so proceed slowly. Young pups can be taught the principles of jumping using only ground poles laid between the wings of a jump. Begin by having someone hold puppy while you call him over. Progress to having him go over the ground pole while you run beside. Eventually work up to sending him ahead of you and out over the ground pole jump while you remain standing still (see send aways). As puppy matures and masters these skills, you can raise groundpole slightly. First place on a brick then gradually raise to a cinder block. Flat-coats should never be jumped any higher until fully grown. Landing on maturing growth plates can cause irreparable damage. Once your dog learns the mechanic of jumping, height can be added later.
Training Agility Skills
Below are several agility-related skills that you can teach your pup at an early age.
Sits & Downs: In agility, you’ll need a really fast sit and a fast down for the pause table. Make a game of seeing how quickly you can get your dog to sit and down on your command.
Hitting the Contact Zones: Start *now* to teach a solid contact performance. If you plan to train contacts using food, teach your dog to bend over and get a treat on your command. Add this to your puppy plank and puppy seesaw exercises, having him race across the plank to get the treat, then walk slowly off. The reward should always be in the contact zone, not after the dog has left the obstacle. If your pup climbs steps to get in and out of the house, practice contacts as he descends the steps. Place food at the bottom of the steps and give him his contact command and point to the food as he descends. This will get him accustomed to going all the way down and pausing briefly at your command as he goes down - a great start for contacts!
Send Aways: Start early in teaching your dog to move out ahead of you. Begin by placing a treat on a visible target, like a paper plate, about a foot in front of puppy. Show him the treat, then restrain him until he is squirming to get away and get the treat. Tell your pup to “get out” and release him. Gradually increase the distance you are sending him and vary his approach so that he is not always running a straight line to the goodie. Eventually, you can add an obstacle like a tunnel or jump between your dog and his treat. This teaches him to work away from you and race ahead to take the obstacle.
General Fun Stuff
In agility, dogs must be able to work under a variety of conditions with self-confidence. Always look for new experiences to introduce your pup to. For example, walk him over a ladder or an exercise pen that has been laid on the ground. This will not only expose him to varying surfaces, but will also help him learn “where his feet are.” Make it a fun game with lots of praise and petting. Teach your pup to run with you. It sounds easy, but it really can set the stage for a dog who is responsive to your movements even when he is at an all-out run (a must in agility). Have him sprint around the yard with you, adding lots of sudden turns and stops. Reward him when he responds quickly and turns or stops with you. This is the first step toward a dog that is aware of your body position. Many dogs respond more effectively to the change-of-direction commands that you give with your body language than those you give verbally. The running game can help make your dog a natural.
When doing early agility training with your pup remember one thing - most puppies are fearless. This means they’ll be open to trying new things without being encumbered by fear. Use this to your advantage. However, you must make sure puppy’s confidence does not get him into trouble. Keep all the obstacles very low and very safe. A puppy may not understand the consequences of falling off a dogwalk! So, don’t let him get in any situation that could cause him harm. Progressing slowly will give you a strong foundation and a more reliable and confident dog. Have fun!!
Webb and Leslie are nationally ranked agility competitors, active agility club members and trainers and Webb is an AKC licensed Agility Judge. They have 1 Flat-coat and 3 Miniature Schnauzers.