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For some dog owners, the exercise and fun doesn’t stop at just the daily walks and the occasional game of fetch in the backyard. Dog sports are becoming increasingly popular with dog owners of all sorts, bringing new enthusiasts into the world of sports such as flyball, frisbee, dock diving, and the ever exciting sport of agility.
Agility involves a combination of handler and dog navigating a set of obstacles in the shortest time possible, including jumps, tunnels, weaving poles, and other such hurdles that need to be overcome as fast as possible. While the official competitions are mostly relegated to adult dogs, most owners who opt to go into agility start training as soon as possible, beginning with the foundations of the sport while their dog is still within the stages of puppyhood.
One thing to keep in mind is that agility can be strenuous on a dog’s joints and muscles. Pushing a puppy to perform stunts and tricks that their body is not physically prepared to perform can result in disastrous consequences. As such, most trainers will not begin training until about four months, continuing to train up until a puppy is at least 14 to 16 months of age where they can begin official competition. This offers the opportunity for the pup to develop appropriately while learning the fundamentals of the training.
If considering introducing your puppy to agility, a full veterinarian check is required. Once cleared, you’ll be working on building confidence and bonding with your puppy, focusing on a simple development of training essentials, rather than aiming for perfection or speed. Rushing may be detrimental, so take your time and enjoy your work just as much as you would with play.
Following your necessary veterinarian evaluation, you’ll want to gather up some agility specific equipment or create safe equipment yourself, if you have the ability to do so. Some ideal obstacles would consist of tunnels, weave poles, and small, adjustable hurdles. Try to steer away from the seesaw or anything that might be too tall or dangerous for your puppy at these stages. These should be utilized later on in your training after puppyhood.
In addition to that, bring plenty of treats and toys for positive rewards and a clicker, if you’d like to introduce it to your puppy for this training.
The Clicker Method
Accustom your pup to the clicker
Click and then treat your puppy to get him used to the association that the click means ‘good’ and results in a reward.
Start with basic obedience
Before even venturing onto the equipment, start with the basic obedience commands such as ‘sit’, ‘down’, and ‘stay’.
Work on teamwork
Click and reward when your puppy focuses on you or waits for your instructions. He should grow used to watching you for input and waiting for you to tell him what to do.
Use plenty of games
Break up monotonous training by involving games like fetch to encourage recall and fun.
Reinforce the clicker
Use the clicker whenever your puppy makes progress, even if it isn’t perfect. You should be rewarding heavily and often to develop a positive association with agility.
The Exposure Method
Set equipment in the proper position
Place agility equipment into your backyard or in a large open space indoors for your puppy to explore. Outdoors is a better bet, as most agility courses take place on some sort of grass.
Don’t punish fear
Almost every puppy will go through some sort of fear stage and hesitate around new objects. This behavior should not be punished, as this can reinforce negative views on agility as a whole.
Reward for boldness
Instead of punishing for fear, reward for your puppy taking steps to interact with or investigate each obstacle.
Explore each obstacle
Allow your pup opportunities to look at and sniff every obstacle you’ve set out. She should be allowed to take the time she needs to determine whether or not she can adjust to each obstacle.
Take breaks when necessary
Don’t overextend your puppy’s patience. Step away from the obstacles every now and again and take some time to rest.
The Gradual Method
Keep tunnels short, jumps low to the ground, and poles far apart. Set your puppy up for success at the early stages by not asking too much.
Build skills over time
Go one by one and work on mastery of each obstacle rather than trying to learn everything all at once. Focus on certain things on certain days to prevent confusion.
Weave practice in with fun
Allow your puppy time to just run around and be a dog when things seem stressful. Agility should be a fun sport, not strenuous or overwhelming.
Attend a puppy class
Look for a local agility group that has puppy classes to expose yours to more obstacles, training methods, and socialization opportunities.
Never put your puppy in a situation to perform something he is not ready to perform. This can lead to a negative association with the sport, or worse, injury.
By TJ Trevino
Published: 04/13/2018, edited: 01/08/2021