how to start training your agility puppy: 5-8 months old

This is part 2 of my posts about beginning agility with your puppy (or new rescue dog, or whatever). The first part can be found here, and I suppose it covers from when you first get your pup, to around 5 months of age. 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.

Young Lu (6 months) & our first tunnel.

Young Lu (5 months) & our first tunnel.

So far you should have been doing lots and lots of playing- tug, chasing, fetching, running. Your pup should have a good idea of shaping, and a few tricks under its belt, and be developing its understanding of its body. Yes, you have rear-feet, puppy, use them! Your pup should have a pretty good recall, and I would have been working on a stay up to this point, though I wouldn’t expect it to be rock-solid.  You also want to have been teaching a “ready… ready…?!” command by holding your puppy’s collar and revving them up with a toy, before releasing to get that toy. You can do it before their dinner, to thrown treats, before you throw their ball- whatever gets them excited. You want for them to know that when they hear you say “ready… ready!?” something exciting or awesome is about to happen. Mallei is so used to this command that he often looks ready to jump out of his skin… Lumen just closes her mouth, gets very serious, and tenses her whole self.

This is the stage where I started introducing Lumen to the ‘stuff’. I picked up a cheap tunnel first, then graduated to a better quality ‘real’ tunnel soon after.

For tunnels, you want to begin with a straight, short tunnel. Silvia Trkman suggests shaping them into the tunnel…. I just stretched mine out long and sent Mal through with Lumen chasing behind. She figured that if Mal was doing it, it was probably ok and she might as well join in. At this point, restrained recalls through the tunnel are great- I haven’t done enough of these with Lumen, but it’s hard when I’m usually training by myself. I started throwing a ball over the tunnel and releasing her through it to get them. You can also begin by throwing the ball through the tunnel, but I’m so useless at throwing that this so wasn’t going to happen. You progress by throwing the ball later and later. I also play the 500-ball game with the tunnel, where Lu is constantly going back and forth through it to get the ball thrown in either direction. I found at first she’d miss the tunnel entrances occasionally unless lined up straight at it. Now, she’ll take it more often than not, unless coming from a weird angle- so there’s still work to be done.

You can start curving the tunnel, too. Lu still has trouble with a curved tunnel and will slow right down, so obviously this is a weak-point for us that I need to find the magic key to!

Don't forget lots of running and chasing still, too!

Don’t forget lots of running and chasing still, too!

As for weaves, we’ve been training the channel method, and started at 6 or 7 months with 6 poles on the left, and 6 on the right, with the left side being about 30cm further forward than the right side, to teach correct entries, and the channel being 1 meter apart. We’ve simply been throwing the ball through the channel and rewarding for staying in it. We then began moving around a bit to try different entrances, though it’s hard when the channel is so wide. Currently, at 9 months old, our channel is about 70cm wide, and we can usually do a 90 degree angle from the right-hand side of the weaves. We’re a little stuck here for now as Lu needs to work on tempering her speed with that entry so she doesn’t overshoot and come out the opposite side!

We’ve also begun running contacts on a long piece of carpet, rewarding for flat-out running, and now, for feet placement, though it largely depends on where she starts so it’s not as important yet.

As for see-saws, all our drawer-slamming has now transitioned to pushing down the end of the see-saw with her front paws, and being rewarded for a hard push and a bang noise. Due to all the drawer practice, Lumen thinks this is the best game, and will happily wander up and down the seesaw if given a chance- not my intention!!! But I’m pleased all the same.

We’ve also been now doing cik/tok turns that we had shaped inside previously, and have begun extension jumping, focusing forward to a toy, and a good “go!” command to run on. Some people will say not to jump your dogs yet, but we’re not doing it intensively, every day, for hours. Susan Salo and Silvia Trkman both recommend jumping at this age on very low bars. Some activities we’ve been working on have included: race to the toy (throwing a toy ahead and saying “ready, ready…” before racing to it. If you get it before your dog, you make a big fuss of playing with it by yourself… if your dog gets it, you give lots of praise and have a great play. Goal: your dog looks ahead, and drives forward independently of you), race to the toy over a jump, cik/tok around trees at the park, 500-ball game, jump-and-go (it has another name but mine makes more sense) where you jump left, right, left then run off… keeps your dog guessing, focused and excited. Next time, just jump left then run.

You should be getting a better idea of your pup’s strengths and weaknesses by now, and getting an idea of what really gets them going. For example, I know I’ve needed to work on speed into turns with Lu and it’s just now starting to pay off… I know that if I get her to do the ‘chomp’ command, she seems to run better. I aslo know that every now and then I need to throw a handful of food in the grass to give her a ‘sniff break’. You should be figuring out what works with your dog and what doesn’t. And look, you might not know it all, but you want to be keeping your eyes and ears open for things that make your dog have extra fun, work extra hard and run extra fast!

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