When to Start Puppy Pre Agility
Many of us get involved with dog agility as a form of fun bonding between us and our dog. In fact, many dogs starting in agility are older dogs so we can get right into the fun stuff like jumps and contact obstacles. Then when we get bit by the “dog agility bug” we want to start with a puppy. This is where you need to be very careful because a puppy under the age of one can permanently damage it’s joints on agility equipment and some dogs need even longer. Puppies have soft bones, and if the plates in the joints are damaged (jumping or falling can do this easily) the puppies’ bone may not grow properly, potentially resulting in a stunted limb. And even though most organizations will allow you to compete with a dog one year of age, some large breeds such as a German Shepherd dog or Rottie should not be jumping full height until 16 – 18 months.
All breeds are different as well as all dogs in a breed are different, but for the sake of this article we are going to focus on the average. You need to talk to your vet about your individual dog’s growth and development patterns to ensure your individual dog is ready to start dog agility training.
With that in mind we will get started. Most puppies can start pre-agility training at 4 months of age, providing the instructor has knowledge of the proper exercises, equipment height and lesson durations. You can start with all kinds of flat work such as shadow handling, hand targeting, tricks as well as the introduction of obstacles on the ground. It is at this age you want to focus on teamwork so you never want to rush or drill your puppy. Everything should be light, up beat and full of playtime for your puppy.
You can also use this time to get your puppy use to things that happen on the agility field such as bars dropping, blowing chutes, focus during distraction, strange surfaces, people making noise and other dogs working around them. Do keep in mind that most dogs go through to fear phases while in puppy-hood, so if one day your fearless pup becomes the fearful pup take things slow and maybe even avoid those fearful obstacles until your dog grows out of that phase.
You can introduce your puppy to lessons that teach body awareness such as Box Work; standing on small raised surfaces like a table on the ground and getting into a “box” with all feet, walking over low bars, wobble boards and walking on planks. You can slowly introduce obstacles such as a short tunnel, the chute without the cloth attached in the beginning, the tire set to ground level and a teeter slightly raised. Jumps should be either bumps or poles on the ground. Remember, you can do tons of handling exercises without any height on your jumps like send outs, recalls and even wraps.
If you attend a puppy agility class and the instructor wants you to perform any obstacle at a height you are uncomfortable with, you should speak up. If the instructor will not accommodate you, find a new instructor. Remember that your dog’s safety is your sole responsibility, not the instructors. And keep in mind the objective for puppy agility is not to see how far, how fast you can go with your puppy, but is the start of a long and healthy partnership with you and your dog. Lessons need to be short for puppies as well. You can sour a dog really fast if you start drilling them on a lesson. We are not looking for perfection from a puppy, instead we are building confidence, concentration and a team.
Until the puppy is closer to 6 months you should stay away from the Teeter, Dog Walk and A-frames. You can put them on planks on the ground and the A-frame if it can be lowered to inches off the ground and you use a leash and hands-on control. You can also use a mini a-frame for puppy training. If you are blessed with a backyard that has agility equipment remember that it is important not to leave puppies alone around agility obstacles without supervision.
With all that being said, remember this is a time to have fun and build confidence in a young mind. Leave pride and inhibition at home and get ready to have fun upbeat structured fun with you puppy while building a solid communication system and partnership that will last for years to come.