My puppy Felix just had his first birthday not quite a month ago. He is learning all kinds of things; we train every day. A lot of dogs his age are running full courses and will be competing in just two short months. In two months, I hope we are on our way to learning a dogwalk, and doing some short sequences with full height bars. We might even be venturing into weave pole territory!
This is not a blog about what could be wrong with how some people choose to pace their young agility dog’s training; and it’s not about a formula–because there is none. Instead this is about prioritizing and planning a young dog’s training, rather than speeding ahead, pedal to the metal.
In bringing up a young agility dog I have a rough timeline. This timeline is incomplete; it only focuses on sport-related things. I am always teaching husbandry and “life” skills alongside any sport skills. What good is a perfectly trained agility dog that hates the vet and can’t hike off leash? Here is my timeline, with each age period’s key element. Keep in mind that each previous element is included as we go; we don’t stop working on the previous element just because a new one is in the forefront.
- 8 to 12 weeks: socialization and trust
- 12 to 16 weeks: play
- 4 to 6 months: thinking skills via basic behaviors and body awareness tricks
- 6 to 9 months: toy skills
- 9 months to 12 months: foundation skills for sports (primarily handling)
- 12 months to 16 months: obstacle skills
- 16 months to 2 years: bringing handling and obstacle skills together
Along this timeline I am always asking these questions:
- Is my puppy ok with everything he will have to be ok with?
- Are my previous priority skills holding strong as I introduce new priorities?
- What new factors are influencing my dog’s training right now?
Fear Periods, Heat Cycles, and Other Disasters
Felix’s timeline has gone pretty much like the one I outlined above, with a few glitches. He had a couple of intense fear periods in which I didn’t try to teach him anything. Fear periods are nasty and normal. It is best to ride them out at home with easy stuff like puzzle toys (that don’t make noise) and soft stuffed animals to chew/bite/hump. Luckily, my time line has built-in buffers for these things, so we never fell behind.
Recently our biggest bump in the road occurred: Idgie’s heat cycle. She cycles like clockwork once in the winter and once in the summer. The first time she came in Felix was too young to notice much, but this last one was really rough on the poor dude. All training ceased (he’d leave the field to go cry at the door because Idgie was inside) and his constant crying and barking meant we were rarely in the same room. I feel like there was a week where I didn’t see Felix, and when it was over I realized how much I missed him. I’ve lived with both intact males and females at once for a while, and I hope that as his hormones regulate (they are surging right now) this improves. I am aware of the simple solution here, but will not spay or neuter my dogs so young (and prefer not to at all). So, we’ll see. For now, we’ve got another six months of peace and training.
A Pendulum Must Swing
Knowing that all skills affect all other skills, and that our dogs do not live in a laboratory means recognizing the natural ebb and flow of training. Too much handler focus is as big of a mistake as developing a tunnel obsession. Teaching everything with toys is as detrimental as only using food. Producing slow performances by focusing on perfection is just as tough to undo as creating a kamikaze on course.
Want to know a secret? You will always be a little too far to one side of the spectrum in your training. Balance is actually a verb.
If you recognize from the get-go that your training is a pendulum; that is always swings from one side to the next, you’ll respond to setbacks appropriately. Each skill that we teach has a balance to it, and we do best to remember that as we go. Handler focus is balanced by obstacle focus, deceleration is balanced by acceleration, and crazy all-out running is balanced by thoughtfulness. When we swing too far to one side we need to swing high the other way before the pendulum can hum away near the center again.
So as you set forth to train your young performance dog, remember to let her responses dictate your choices, rather than your schedule. Whether you step to the line when she is 15 months or 30 actually matters less than the quality of your training program. And all of it will matter little in the grand scheme of your dog’s life; which is, being canine, destined to be too short.