Archive for January 19th, 2019

Some Thoughts About Novice Dogs

Saturday, January 19th, 2019

We all have to do what we feel is right for our dogs. We base our decisions about this on experience, education, research, opinions of those we trust, and (I would hope) science.

An agility dog, in addition to being a loved family member and pet, is a long-term project. You are never “done”, there are always tweaks and improvements and changes throughout a dog’s life.

I elected to start Alice using the OneMind Dogs methods. I have used many of their ideas and skills over the last few years, but she was the first dog I used their methods with from the start. I followed their puppy training methods in addition to my own things and (my training partner and friend) Sue’s suggestions.

One thing Sue suggested, which I did, was to start running Alice on modified courses from a VERY early age. I think she was sequencing at something like 3 months of age. No contacts, no bars or bars on the ground, no weaves. The real benefit of this is that sequencing and running with me and adapting to my changes in direction and speed are things she’s been doing for over a year now. It’s nothing new to her.

Now some folks feel quite strongly that you should wait to start trialing (and in some cases even training for agility) until the dog is older, fully mature, trained through Masters level, etc.

Again, we all have to do what feels right. For me, I like to get a dog out at a trial pretty early. Nothing replicates a trial environment. And nothing shows up the holes in your training like a trial. And even though my dogs start coming with me to trials as young puppies, and don’t find the environment AT a trial anything unusual, actually RUNNING is a different story. So Zhora started competing shortly after she turned 15 months, and now so has Alice (she’s three days shy of 16 months).

The important factors for me are:

  • keeping my expectations reasonable and limited (I am not looking for a Q or perfect performance, I am looking for the dog to get her feet wet and have a wonderful, exciting experience, and leave the ring wanting more)
  • keeping the dog safe (do a few simple obstacles and see where we’re at). I didn’t ask Alice to do the teeter (even though she has a very solid teeter performance in practice) or the weaves, just jumps, aframe (which she loves) and tunnels. Remember, the goal isn’t a Q or even a whole course, the goal is short, successful, and FUN.
  • keeping the experience high energy and fun (I want a dog who is screaming to go at the start line, who wants to go right back into the ring at the end of a run, who thinks playing agility with me is the Best. Thing. Ever.). So I didn’t ask Alice for a start line stay (I held her collar and then released her), I did only a few obstacles, I praised her the whole way around (“look at you! what a good dog! you’re a rock star!”). I really believe in that Linda Mecklenburg quote about how if you want a dog to be a champion you must treat him like he already is one.
  • do a proper warm-up and focus work beforehand (I do this with all my dogs before a run, and even a short baby run is still a run). So some brisk walking, a few practice jumps, leg weaving, chasing the Lotus Ball, motivational downs (repeated high energy down, release, reward), shadow handling, short on-leash recalls, nose touches, tugging.
  • set her up for success: I no longer say “jump” in practice, for example, but in a markedly different environment like a trial, I want to help as much as possible
  • DON’T FIX ANYTHING!!! When Sue and I were course building and thus having to stay until the end of the trial, we watched a lot of Novice and Open teams run. We noticed how you could tell the difference between Novice handlers with Novice dogs, and experienced handlers with Novice dogs. Most of the experienced (and successful) handlers didn’t fix anything, or fixed only one thing. Whereas the Novice handlers tended to try to fix EVERYTHING. One thing Melanie Miller told us at the seminar last summer is so very true: the fastest way to slow a green dog down is to fix everything. Fixing things too early erodes a dog’s confidence and makes agility a stop and start sport instead of a keep going sport. Fixing things may have a place, but the first few runs for a green dog is not that place.
  • MAKE IT MEMORABLE IN A POSITIVE WAY. My dogs’ special treat after a run is a few bites of a plain donut, or baby food, or canned puppy food (the Royal Canin starter mousse is their favorite). Alice had only had crumbs of these things before yesterday, but yesterday, for the first time, she got the same as the “real” agility dogs get. We did my usual post-run routine of leaving the ring, HUGE praise all the way back to the crate (“You’re amazing! What a rock star! Go get your cookie! You earned it! Go get it!”), and then the reward given in tiny bites by hand with huge praise with each bite (“oh my goodness you’re so smart! Look what you did! How awesome are you! Yeah eat that cookie! That’s your cookie! You’re amazing!”). I have a special extra-stupid voice I use for this reward-feeding routine, but it makes my dogs crazy-happy and that’s what it’s all about. Remember that one big bite is one opportunity for reward, whereas five or six little bites is five or six opportunities for reward!

I was thrilled with how Alice handled her first run. She was happy and focused and this was by far the best first run I’ve had with a dog!