From Accessory to Agility

Q. How should I train my small dog to do agility? Where should we go for training and competitions?

A. Congratulations on not treating your teacup like a fashion accessory! Mini dogs ARE dogs, not children, not accessories, and certainly not toys. That doesn’t mean they’re not a lot of fun to play with, but there are some things to keep in mind when you start agility with your small dog…

Equal, not the same Small dogs are still dogs, and behave themselves as such. Personalities vary so widely between all dogs that to say ‘this breed/size/color are all…’ is ludicrous. Some generalities can be made, of course, but every dog is individual. Some border collies don’t enjoy agility! Some Labradors don’t want to swim! (And, once upon a time, I met the legendary calm, laid back Jack Russell Terrier!) No matter the size or breed, if your individual dog enjoys agility, then they enjoy agility and can, and should do it! If a trainer tells you otherwise, find another trainer. Though small dogs do agility, there are some facts to keep in mind about them when you practice.

Short legs Many small dogs have short legs, so they are often slower on course, though their paws are moving as fast as is doggily possible. Running a full course may be difficult for them, so keep obstacles closer together than you would for a tall dog. Don’t exhaust your dog.

Angles Short legs means a short dog. A short dog sees things from a different angle than a bigger dog. Crouch down and put your head at your dogs’ height, and look around the agility course. Then look at the contact obstacles!  Keep that view  in mind as you’re training if your dog shows some apprehension on a full-height a-frame. It’s very intimidating to a small dog! They’re incredibly brave to try at all, and do it because they love you and want to please you.

Cues And all those angles can mean that unless your dog is looking up at you, they may miss the way you’re moving your arm. Use low cues, or foot cues. For those who’ve never heard of foot cues, it’s possible to use your feet instead of your hands to teach a dog to do something. It’s fairly common in obedience, actually, as leading with the left leg means ‘heel’ and leading with the right, ‘stay’, and for my dogs, scuffing my right leg means stop. Your small dog can learn to watch your legs for directional cues especially, so try and be as blatant as you can.

Rewards Agility dogs typically have high drive, and are frequently rewarded with food and play. Keep in mind that small dogs have small stomachs! Break high-value treats into tiny, tiny bits for them, about the size of your pinkie nail for the average treat, and bigger bits for their ‘jackpots’. Be careful not to overfeed! Use caution when tugging with a toy breed. They’re easier to damage than a larger dog, and a pull too hard can loosen teeth. Get appropriately sized toys for fetching rewards. Many teacup dogs’ mouths are too small to wrap around a tennis ball!

Nature Many small dogs were bred for varmint or pest hunting.  That makes for extremely tenacious, energetic dogs, who often love going to ground, so to speak.  You may find you have a tunnel hound on your hands!  Encourage your dogs’ natural tendencies on course and off, and gently guide them towards doing things that don’t come as naturally- like weaves.  Use what your dog likes to your advantage!

Competition! You’ve been training and practicing, and you’re ready to compete! Where should you go? The answer is simple- anywhere you like! Every organization has something to offer. My personal favorite for small dogs under 17” at the withers is TDAA– teacup dog agility association. The organization is dedicated to small dogs and their owners. They make agility easier, safer, and all-round enjoyable for miniature breeds. Their courses are smaller than average, so that shorter legs are accommodated. TDAA contact equipment is lowered, easing the angle anxiety some dogs may experience, and their equipment is designed for small dogs.

Finally, remember that no matter your dogs’ size, agility is fun. It’s a sport where you and your dog learn to interact at another level, and become an inseparable, unstoppable team.

6 Comments on “From Accessory to Agility

  1. That is absolutely correct. My wife also worries about this issue in obedience where, at the Open level, you have to leave the room while your dog is on a sit or down.

    Stamina is certainly important and will be individual to the dog. My Havanese is able to do five runs a day in NADAC and actually gets faster as the day goes on.

  2. I think you should mention the need for keeping your small dog safe both outside and inside the ring. Many Toy breed dogs look like prey to larger dogs. At an agility class or trial, dogs are often “in prey drive” due to the excitement of the trial and movement of the other dogs. Outside the ring you may need to carry a tiny dog and always be aware of other dogs who might be tempted to grab it or “play” with it. One chomp from a big dog and a 5 pound dog could be dead or ruined forever. It also means picking trials where it is less likely that a dog from an adjacent ring can run into the ring where you and your small dog are competing.

    Many tiny dogs also have less stamina than a big dog. This may mean carrying in or using a wheeled crate for a long walk from the parking lot etc.. Distances are a lot farther for a dog whose legs are just a few inches long. You can’t expect a dog to run a marathon coming in from the parking lot and then still have a lot of energy to run 2 or 3 classes, at speed, each day during a long show weekend.

  3. I train a Havanese in NADAC Agility and plan to enter my first AKC trial in June. Small dogs can deffinitely do agility if they have the right temperament for it. She has only been trialing since October and she already has most of her Novice titles and three Open titles. It is a ball and I would encourage more people with small dogs to get involved.