how to start training your agility puppy: the beginning.

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Learning to tug and play

This is part 1 of my posts about beginning agility with your puppy (or new rescue dog, or whatever). This is by no means a definitive article on things you can do with your pup, nor should you consider it to be expert advice! I’ve done a lot of research since getting Lumen into good foundation skills, games and exercises, so I figure I’ve got a pretty good grasp of what to do. That being said, if something doesn’t work for you, don’t do it. Adjust it, try it another way, do what works for your dog. Find the things you need to work on, and work on them. Lu and I have been working a lot on speed and motivation, but if you have a crazy border-collie, you might need to work more on self-control. I’ve hardly mentioned self-control as it came so naturally to Lumen, so, don’t feel that this is prescriptive. Do what you need to do, and use this as a guide.

I had a question on my blog recently about when a reader could begin training the weaves, tyre, jumps, etc with their new puppy.

There’s often a lot of contradicting information around the internet about this, particularly when it comes to jumping your young dog, so I’ll try and condense what I believe here. This is aside from all the normal ‘socialisation’ stuff you must be doing with your puppy, too.

Firstly, you can begin your ‘agility training’ from the moment your puppy comes home with you (well, maybe give him or her a day or two to settle in!). What I mean by this is- lots and lots of playing. I wish I’d played more with Lumen but her teeth were so sharp…! If I could go back to puppy-hood with her, I think I’d spend a bit less time shaping and more time playing. But we’re making up for it now. Lots of tug, lots of chasing toys on a string. I also ran around the backyard a lot with Lu, teaching her that running with me is great fun- sometimes I turn around and go the other way! (Preparing for front-crosses). When you catch me, we play again! Running, chasing and playing with me is great fun.

Husband running with baby Lu in our backyard

Husband running with baby Lu in our backyard

I did lots of restrained recalls- Husband held Lumen and I ran off then called her. She was rewarded with really yummy food. We started in the backyard, and when I felt pretty confident that she wasn’t going anywhere, we ventured out to parks with her on a long lead, so I could stomp on it if she tried going anywhere. We also did heaps of recalls in general, whenever we were in the house, in the yard, at the park. Heaps of recalls.

We played a game where I’d hide behind a tree at the park if Lumen hadn’t been paying attention to me for a long time. Mal is an expert at this so he always ruined it by showing her the way, but it taught her to check in. We also did this game when we were out on walks on trails- we’d stop and go the opposite direction if they got too far ahead, and have a party when they figured it out and came racing back to us.

We did tricks- heaps of tricks. Lots of shaping. If you’re not sure what shaping is, you need to learn if you’re wanting to do agility. Here’s some information, you can also google ‘clicker training’, though you don’t have to use a clicker to be able to shape. Tricks for thinking, for balance, for strength and for body awareness are especially necessary for doing agility. These tricks can include: sitting pretty/beg, standing on rear-legs, four-in, circle/pedestal trick , back-up, back-up onto some books, spin left/right, lift front left/right foot, circle an object in both directions (becomes cik/cap) slamming cupboard drawers or doors (great for teaching see-saw) and more than you can think of.

Some of these lead into agility behaviours. For example, training a dog to hop on a low box or books then keep its back feet there while its front feet go on the ground. This could be the beginning of your contact behaviour. Left and right spins come in handy for directionals. All these tricks help your dog develop body awareness (necessary to help them with jumping, running, contacts, turns, etc) and strength, and thinking skills – so when it comes to teaching the weaves, they’ll have the skills to think about what it is you want them to learn.

Another great game is to involve your puppy in a game of tug, grab his or her collar, get the tug off him, then throw it just a little way ahead. Release the puppy and race to the tug, picking it up and playing again. Fetch/ball chasing is amazingly useful for agility, so definitely try and build value for chasing a ball. Get your pup used to you grabbing his collar and pulling back- you want him to resist. Hold his collar and wave a toy just out of reach with your other hand. When you feel him pull toward the toy, let go of his collar and play together. This is a great game to teach obstacle focus- your dog is looking ahead at an obstacle, and driving forward to it. Eventually this behaviour transfers to jumps.

Lastly, I am a strong believer in crate training- both for your own sanity and for self-control in agility pups. Crating Lu as a pup now means I can take her to school and she’ll sleep all day, I had no chewed shoes or TV remotes, and very few accidents in the house. I know now that when I go to trials, she’ll be happy to sleep in her crate, too. But, at the same time, I think it helped her learn an amazing stay really quickly, and great self-control. If you have a chance, take a look at Susan Garett’s Crate Games. We didn’t do all of them, but as a baby puppy, the first ones were great for us.

I’ll address how to begin real equipment in my next entry on this topic. I didn’t introduce Lumen to a tunnel until she was probably 4 months old, though you could do it earlier, and again, shape them into the tunnel before doing restrained recalls through it, or throwing a ball through… Jumps I introduced with no bars at about 6-7 months (again, there’s debate here, but I’m following Silvia Trkman’s methodology), at the same time as a wide channel with weaves, and carpet for running contacts. The tyre I shaped Lumen to at about 7 months, with it lying flat on the ground, and we’ve played the ‘bang’ game with the end of the seesaw a couple of times now but she has no fear due to all the drawer-slamming work I did.

Remember, with your puppy, agility needs to be all about fun, chasing, and playing.

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