Promoting structure, health, and temperament in performance dogs.

On the weekend we had the rare opportunity to do 2 obedience trials in the same day at Peninsula Dog Fanciers. Needless to say I took advantage of the chance to compete multiple times with each dog rather than driving back and forwards 1.5 hr again the next day. The day started well with a qualifying score for Bella in Novice Obedience and her Novice title. Next she got to try Excellent Rally for the first time. We struggled a little with one of the stations and I stepped over the line in the send to the jump so we just managed to squeak in with a qualifying score. Knixa was up next and managed a 93 in her Advanced Rally course. Ben followed next with his qualifying score in Novice rally despite finding the floor had some interesting smells in certain spots. In the afternoon show Knixa did her long sit and down perfectly for the first time in a while in Novice Obedience. However she got disconnected during off-leash heeling so we didn’t get enough points on that exercise to qualify. Then Bella went into her 2nd Excellent Rally exercise. Despite having 4 stations that required stands and despite it is still a skill we are working on we managed to qualify again. Knixa then followed with her Advanced Class. This time she got a 96 and her Advanced title so I guess she’s ready for excellent. Last to compete was Ben in Novice Rally with a final score of 95 to finish his title. In between courses I had a fun time catching up with friends old and new. This is a show I hope to return to next year.

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This post is part of the Dog Agility Blog Event on Starting Your New Puppy. Visit the event page to see lots of other perspectives on this topic. A new puppy is one of the most joyful and exciting things to experience, but can also be the cause of much fear and trepidation, because we feel everything needs to started just the right way. With families who have brought one of my puppies into their home as their first dog, the need to start “just the right way” covers everything from getting just the right crate and leash, to the just the right method for potty training and crate training. When it comes to training for performance activities the fear can be even worse, especially when the puppy is going to have every bit of foundation training that the last dog missed out on and will have the perfect running or stopped contacts that the last dog didn’t have. In cases like these the mountain of expectations can seem almost insurmountable, and there is a fear of teaching something not quite right that can’t be undone later. After training more than 10 new puppies myself, the compulsion to get things just right has waxed and waned over the years, and I still have anxious moments where I worry whether I have a “real” training plan in place. But there are a few principles I’ve learned over the years that help me get started and keep going with my training, because after all, the process of starting and continuing to work with your puppy is more important in some ways than the specifics of what you train.

1. It’s Never too Early to Start

There’s been a lot of discussion lately about the right age to start puppies — in particular agility skills — and I’ll save my detailed comments on that for another blog post. However, I firmly believe that as a puppy shows interest in certain types of playing and behaviors that start to approach what we may want as an adult, we can reward and encourage these to be done in a safe manner that fits the puppy’s developmental stage. Certainly I will have puppies I’ve bred who show interest in a tiny tennis ball chasing and retrieving it by 5 weeks old. I will reward with lots of praise and encouragement and we’ll maybe do it 3 or 4 times before the game is over. Similarly puppies may be familiarizing themselves with wobbly objects and running through play tunnels by 6 or 8 weeks. Sometimes this will be encouraged, but the duration of the activity will be determined by the puppy. In general I will keep to short training sessions that don’t require any real physical endurance or strength from the puppy through those high growth periods (through to about 6 months, depending on the breed) and let most of the physical activity be directed by the puppy in a safe environment. During that time there’s an endless number of useful tricks, such as targeting objects and other behaviors, like sits and downs, that can be taught, especially with clicker training. After that I believe puppies can be directed in a more structured way to use safely use equipment such as jumps with no or low bars, gently curved tunnels, and flat planks. Along with the emerging physical capabilities, the puppy is maturing emotionally and mentally such that they can concentrate for longer, learn to control impulses, and simply handle life. Through careful observation you’ll often see that this is the limiting factor on how much a puppy can do at any stage, as you’ll quickly see the stress responses and recognize shutdown and aversion to the activity if the puppy is pushed too far too fast.

2. Let Go of Your Expectations

Sometimes when we acquire a new puppy it’s because we greatly admire a dog of the same breed or type and hope and believe the new puppy will have the same attributes. Sometimes our expectations are high because we have a great training plan and work super hard with the puppy. However, each puppy no matter its breeding and to some extent its training comes with its own personality, preferences, and strengths and weaknesses. The most difficult relationships I’ve had with dogs in my house have been because there was a mismatch between what I projected onto the puppy and what the puppy actually was. The results in the ring weren’t successful either, until I learned to accept who that dog really was and not who I wanted it to be. Things would have been so much easier had I done that during puppyhood. Sometimes you get the puppy who by all their breeding is meant to be the next agility star but they aren’t that interested in toys or chasing you around a couple of cones in the yard and would rather do little obedience exercises. Or you can get the puppy who is so gangly and uncoordinated that you think they’ll never run fast, much less jump at their regular jump height. Or maybe you have an extremely impatient dog who gives you just a nano-second before they move onto the next incorrect behavior. I say let go of all the baggage. Stretch yourself as a trainer and see if you can be a decent obedience, herding, treibball or whatever type of trainer your puppy needs you to be. You’ll get much further faster in teaching your puppy how to learn if they are excited by the activity. Who knows — you may be able to generate some of that excitement later about activities of your choice. Have patience and let your puppy grow physically and mentally into what they are meant to be; often you’ll be pleasantly surprised. Take on the challenge of being more timely and correct in your rewards and make sure you turn the impatient puppy into a fast and accurate adult.

Teddy 15 weeks

3. Enjoy Your Puppy and Build the Relationship

Going along with the last principle, I believe that if you can truly accept the puppy for who they are then you will really enjoy the puppy, quirks and all. My last puppy is really the first dog I’ve had who enjoys digging or finding holes and hiding in them. For sure this digging tendency is a pain in a dirt agility arena, but it’s pretty funny at home when he digs his way into the sofa cushions to find a hidey-hole and all we see is a little nose peering out. I have to remind myself of that vision while I am diverting him from ruining the arena 🙂 The same puppy tends to be very busy at times looking for shoes, children’s journals from school, and other contraband items, but he has the fastest recall of any dog in the house and willingly relinquishes any prize in second. For that I’m grateful as we put a new cover on my daughter’s journal for the third time.  My daughter gets frustrated with her young dog sometimes as he can get distracted in training. But since he was a young puppy we’ve always made sure there is time to play, and even when she doesn’t have time for training she can take a ball into the hallway and throw it for him. That sort of activity is fun for both of them as she feels like she is able to engage him once again and he just enjoys the game. Find the things that you enjoy about your puppy and focus on those thing to help you feel positive and build the relationship that you’ll need for training in the future.

Rose City Tails

After 35,000 steps; 4 different dogs competing in 15 separate agility, obedience, or conformation events over 2 days; lots of meeting and greeting the public; and a 345 mile round trip in the Passat (at over 40 mpg) we returned from Portland last night. Saturday’s start in agility was a bit rocky for Bella but she had a great Novice Obedience performance with first place and a second place Master’s Jumper’s run. Teddy had his first try at International Standard Agility, where he took third place. At 9 months old Ben got his first turn in Beginner Novice Obedience, where he worked every exercise without any ring nerves (video to follow soon I hope). Knixa worked well for me and her handler in the breed ring and also did a great job on her Excellent Jumper’s course on Sunday. For Bella our best results came on Sunday with 3rd place in Standard Agility, 2nd in Jumpers, and 2nd in International Jumpers, where we had our best and most connected run of the weekend.

To give you an idea of the field this year, 16″ or medium jump height had the largest Masters/Excellent entry. In a welcome move AKC has opened up International courses to all jump heights, not just international small, medium, and large heights and consequently the entry for that event was double last years. Also, I heard from one of the AKC reps that overall agility is now approaching the biggest entry at of all competitions at Rose City.

Jim and or I have been coming to Rose City nearly every year for the last 10 years. We’ve always enjoyed the atmosphere with the crowds, vendors, and lots of friends to connect with. It’s been hard to resist the allure of being able to do all the types of competitions under one roof! We’ve treated it like a mini-regional event but always crammed everything into 2 days. It feels this year like the event is maturing into a real “regional” for agility. Maybe next year with more Pumis ready for competition I’ll try to make it a 3 or 4 day event where we have more time to focus on just agility … okay and maybe obedience too 🙂

A couple of our participants at Rose City this year.

A couple of our participants at Rose City this year.

Ben at 6 Months

Ben at 6 months

Ben is now 6 months old and beginning to learn his agility obstacles while continuing with his trick training. He has a big personality – likes to be in the middle of everything and loves to play with the other dogs – but is physically still a small guy at 14.75″ (37.5cm) tall and 15lb 11oz (7.1 kg).

Here he is in action with some of his current training sessions:

Bella and Her Toe

Feeling sorry for myself ...

Feeling sorry for myself …

Disappointments come in all shapes and sizes and I’m still trying to size this one. Nearly 3 weeks ago Bella badly sprained a toe on her left foot while taking a tire jump at an agility trial. Since then the toe remains swollen and she’s had to rest from most agility training and all competition since sharp turns to the right cause pain.  I could be disappointed about the lost entry fees (3 trials and counting) and fees for canceled airline tickets, or the fact that we have worked hard to get our semi-finals spots at the USDAA Nationals and cannot attend, or that now we will not be trying out for an IFCS spot to compete in the Netherlands. Instead I find myself disappointed that poor Bella doesn’t understand why she has to have more crate time than usual, and why she cannot just go out and run crazy circles in the yard, and why her most fun activity seems to have disappeared. Walks in the park and swimming in the pool to retrieve a floating frisbee can only do so much.

However, things could be worse … The other dogs are enjoying their extra training time – no excuses for not teaching Knixa the weaves and contacts now!  Also we have a pretty good idea of what Bella’s injury is even if we don’t know how long it will take to heal. There are a lot of dogs that suffer soft tissue injuries that sideline them from agility and their owners may never find the specific problem area or may not find very effective long term treatments. And, there are other skills Bella and I can and should work on, like our heeling for obedience that we need to brushed up on before our national specialty next year. As with dogs that retire from agility permanently we need to find activities to stimulate the thinking and exercise the body of our injured dogs, albeit more gently, while they regain full health. I remember after my first agility dog Maya retired her eyes took on a sadness and her body had a sagging posture in the weeks after she stopped training. Even though I knew we’d never be at a freestyle lesson much less a competition I decided it would be fun to learn some of the more challenging skills, such as weaving through the handlers legs forwards and backwards and moving away from me backwards across the room. The sparkle returned to her eyes and she awaited our short training sessions each night as eagerly as she had sat on the agility start line! So for now we’ll get back to proper heeling Bella (hopefully without the crooked sits this time) and maybe we’ll throw in the odd pirouette 😉

Ben at 22 Weeks

Ben Profile 22 weeks Ben sitting at 22 weeks

I’ve just taken Ben’s 5 month measurements. He’s 36.5 cm tall (between 14.25 and 14.5″) and weighs 6.5 kg (14lb 4oz). His tail seems to be wagging constantly when he’s interacting with us and he still loves to play with all the other dogs and meet new people. In training we’ve started on tunnels, a little grid work with low jump bars, and a low seesaw. We continue practicing some tricks inside, such as our front paw target games, that will transfer to his agility training.

Ben at 16 Weeks

This is Ben the young Pumi at 16 weeks old just after his first haircut: Link to Ben’s Puppy Photos

He is going to keep us guessing about his final coat color! He is currently 13″ tall and 11 lb 3 oz. He is a fearless fellow who wants to meet all people and dogs that he encounters.

He has also started his puppy training. This video is from shortly after he arrived.

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Derartu and Alex took first place in the Novice Junior Class today at Olympic Kennel Club in Enumclaw. The bonus is that Derartu’s prize winnings will be enough to get her a couple of nice back-to-school outfits!

Bella completing a turn to go up the a-frame in our agility course.

Bella completing a turn to go up the a-frame in our agility course. Photo by Carrie De Young, AKC Director of Agility.

Wow, what a great experience at EO in Belgium this year! It was a good opportunity to reconnect with friends and the international agility community, especially as I was camping on site with good facilities and a fun atmosphere. Our excellent coaches and the comradery of the U.S. team added to the event. In all I came away feeling satisfied that the training over the last year prepared us well for the course challenges and inspired to take our skills to the next level. In particular I marveled at the fitness and attitude of the German handlers that let them get where they needed to be on those long courses and at the fantastic distance and verbal control of the Russian team. Everyone’s dogs were well conditioned and highly motivated. There’s a reason many countries had teams called “All or Nothing”! This year Bella and I ran completely clear and fast in 2 runs with very respectable rankings and had 2 other qualifying runs with only a fault or 2 – no off-courses at all!  This year I felt we stayed in sync through all the sequences.

The weekend prior to EO Bella and I along with 2 other North American friends enjoyed the hospitality of a local club at the Lihos trial in Genk, Belgium. The weather was extremely hot but luckily we were able to borrow some shade tents for the dogs and take refuge ourselves in the spacious clubhouse, where we also enjoyed the Saturday night BBQ. The courses were extremely challenging and gave us a good lead into the EO weekend. Bella had a great first agility run at that competition taking first place.

There was a trophy for first place – the miniature weave pole set !

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The club also hosted the U.S. team for practice during the week prior to EO, where Bella was snapped in action over the wall jump.

Photo by Carrie De Young.

Photo by Carrie De Young.

Ready to go!

Well, it’s time to zip up the suitcases and do one last check of everything before we fly off to Europe this afternoon for our latest adventure.

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It’s an honor to be asked to run on the national team for dog agility this year at the European Open in Belgium, and our local Northwest agility community has been very supportive. We have researched the judges, practiced the courses, and entered a local Belgian trial the weekend before EO. Now all that remains is looking forward to some great courses and keeping a clear mind during the competition.

The hardest part about going on the trip is leaving the family behind, including the puppies. I think Bella feels the same way as she is cuddling her daughter under my computer desk while I finish some last minute emails.

Aria and Bella July 2013

Bella and Aria July 2013