Puppy Nipping: A Plan to Stop It


Puppy Nipping: A Plan to Stop It

Dachshund Puppy Nipping

If this is a familiar sight, it’s time for a new training plan! (Photo Credit: Renata Lima, Flickr)

Puppy nipping is one of the most frustrating behaviors that new owners report. It hurts! But you’ll see a big reduction in puppy nipping in a short period just by getting some human cooperation. Let’s start by examining why your puppy is putting his mouth on things. I don’t like to spend a ton of time pondering why a dog is doing what he’s doing, but this is such a frustrating behavior for owners that I find it helps to consider the puppy’s point of view. Beginning at a young age, puppies bite each other during play. This behavior starts before you bring your puppy home from the breeder or rescue organization. The puppies are play-fighting and learning their own strength. If they bite a littermate too hard, the other puppy will respond with a high-pitched yelp. This tells the biter to tone it down next time. This is why a common nugget of advice is “If your puppy bites you, shriek in a high-pitched voice.” This sometimes causes the puppy to stop. But sometimes the puppy thinks your noises are fascinating and bites harder next time; it gets him excited and worked up! It just depends on your puppy… and your ability to make a high-pitched puppy yelp, something most men can’t do. I prefer to use methods that work more reliably. Here is my plan.

Step One

Institute a new house rule: everyone interacting with the puppy is “armed” with a soft, biteable toy. It should be long enough to keep your fingers away from the puppy’s mouth when playing. This is always within the puppy’s reach when you’re petting her, playing with her, or snuggling together. Praise the puppy for interacting with the toy. Set yourself up for success by keeping a soft toy in your back pocket, another in a basket on top of the puppy’s crate, and another in the room where you tend to hang out with your pup the most. I recommend braided fleece toys and “unstuffed” plush toys (the kind that resemble roadkill).
Puppy Chewing Shoelaces

Tuck in shoelaces, sweatshirt drawstrings, and other dangly bits of clothing and jewelry to set your puppy up for success. (Photo by Nicki Varkevisser, Flickr)

Step Two

Don’t tempt your puppy! For at least the first few weeks, avoid wearing nice clothing or anything loose-fitting or dangling around her. Change out of your nice work clothes before interacting with your puppy. Tuck in shoelaces and sweatshirt drawstrings, and remove large earrings and necklaces, too. This eliminates the puppy’s opportunity to grab on to these things and elicit an exciting reaction from you. We don’t want the puppy to learn things we wish she wouldn’t, such as “grabbing my mother’s earrings makes her squeak and push me around. That’s fun!” Not a good lesson. You can also use bitter-tasting spray on things that you’re not likely to touch often, such as your shoelaces. The bitter taste can transfer to your fingers, so if you use this method, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before handling food or touching your face.

Step Three

When your puppy mouths your hands, pull them away from her and keep them out of her reach for several seconds. I recommend sticking your hands in your armpits – your puppy can’t nip them there! Ignore your puppy for about 5 seconds. If she continues to try to nip during this time, it may be necessary to stand up or even leave the room. After this little time-out, calmly present your toy to your pup and resume interacting with her. Praise and play with the puppy for engaging the toy, licking your hands, or just being polite. Repeat this step when the pup bites. Be consistent! Remember that screaming or shouting at the puppy, pushing her away, or physically punishing the puppy by pinching her lips or clamping her mouth closed will either intensify the biting or scare the puppy, potentially leading to fearful and aggressive behaviors in the future. If your pup bites on your clothing, gently remove the clothing from her mouth and prevent her access to that article of clothing. If she’s chewing on your shirt sleeve, stand up and roll up your sleeves. If she’s chewing on your pant leg, leave the room or step to the other side of a baby gate or puppy pen so she cannot reach you. Ignore her for a few seconds, then offer her the toy to play with.

Closing Thoughts

The purpose of these training steps is to teach the puppy that when she has the urge to put something in her mouth, she should pick an appropriate toy rather than your hands or clothing. Puppies need to bite, mouth, and chew as they grow, so rather than fight that instinct, channel it into appropriate items. If you need to give your puppy a “time out” more than two or three times in a 10-minute period, she is either very wound up and needs a bit of exercise, or is overtired and needs to be put in her crate for a nap. Remember that the time out does not teach the puppy anything. It just provides an opportunity for your puppy to calm down enough to try other ways of interacting with you, which you must then reward.


Canine Good Citizen Dog Training Class – Advanced Training in Holbrook, MA

American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen

The AKC CGC logo.

We just added a Canine Good Citizen (CGC) Preparation dog training class to our schedule in Holbrook, MA! If you want to improve your dog’s manners and obedience beyond what they learned in puppy class or Basic Dog Manners, this is the right class for you! The Canine Good Citizen test is a 10-part examination created by the American Kennel Club to evaluate a dog’s ability to behave appropriately in a variety of real-life situations. Skills tested include calmly greeting a friendly stranger, walking on a loose leash through a crowd of people, and waiting patiently for their owner to return during a three-minute supervised separation. In our CGC Preparation class, we take the skills your dog has already developed – loose leash walking, stay, coming when called, focusing on you around distractions – and kick ‘em up a notch. We introduce a variety of distractions and begin to reduce the dog’s reinforcement schedule, which means your dog will learn to work for longer periods of time before receiving a reward. This is necessary to succeed during the examination, where no treats, toys, or clickers are allowed! If you’re ready to get started, enroll today! This 6-week class is on Saturdays and begins in March.


Dog and Puppy Training Classes in Holbrook, MA

Spring Forth Dog Services in Randolph, MAWant your dog to learn something new this year? Our free dog training orientation class in Holbrook, MA is just for dog owners who want to know more about training dogs.

About Our Dog Training Classes in Holbrook

Meet our instructors, learn about our methods, and find out how our training program will improve your dog’s behavior at home, on walks, and around the neighborhood. Talk with our trainers one-on-one after the program to find out which class is right for you, or if private training lessons in the comfort of your own home are a better option. We use clicker training and positive reinforcement to create real behavior change. Our techniques work for dogs of all ages and all breeds. Whether you’ve got a playful puppy nipping your hands and clothing or peeing on the carpet, or an adult dog dragging you down the street or lunging at strangers, our training program can help. In addition to teaching group dog training classes in Holbrook, we also offer dog training in Milton, Dorchester, Randolph, and surrounding towns.

Free Dog Training Orientation

Start Smart is a no-strings-attached opportunity to learn more about us. We know you have a lot of options when it comes to dog training. Meet us in person, get to know us a little bit, and ask us questions. We love questions! We understand our methods inside and out and want to help you achieve success with your dog. A Dog's Day Away in Holbrook, MAReady to get started? RSVP online to reserve your spot at our Start Smart orientation. All classes and orientation take place at A Dog’s Day Away, 440 Weymouth St, Holbrook MA 02343. Contact us today. We look forward to helping you with your dog!


Dog Training Record Keeping with the Staples Arc Notebook

I’m always excited to write product reviews for items that work for me and my dogs. Two months ago while shopping for office supplies at Staples, I stumbled across the Arc notebook system. As soon as I saw it in stores, I knew this would be the solution to my dog training record keeping conundrum. I have used it daily ever since, and I dare say it is perfect for me! In the hopes that it might be useful for other dog trainers, I’m outlining my notebook here. First, a review of what I’ve tried in the past…

  • Not keeping records at all. This is one of my biggest regrets of my dog training journey! I wish I had notes from the great workshops and lessons I took in my “early years.”
  • Spiral-bound notebook. It was hard to find a size that was portable but still comfortable to write in. Little ones caused a wrist cramp when taking lots of notes at a seminar. The other downside was having to choose between either lined pages or grids, and for agility seminars I prefer access to both – grids for drawing courses, and lines for taking notes.
  • iPad apps. I blogged before about Daily Notes. My problem was that the tagging functionality got worse and worse with every update. It was easy to check what I did the day or week before, but difficult to track progress on an individual skill (like the dogwalk). I have also used Noteshelf to take seminar notes, but it is difficult to draw courses on the iPad, so it’s no better than a paper notebook. (As an aside, I use Noteshelf for taking notes at consultations and lessons with clients and find it to be excellent for that purpose.)
My Junior Arc Notebook

My notebook! It does not come with the fun book band. (I bought that as part of a two-pack at the craft store chain Michael’s.)

Without further ado, here’s the Arc notebook I use for tracking my dogs’ training progress. It’s 6 3/4″ by 8 3/4″ and I got it for less than $20 at Staples. Arc is a “discbound” notebook system. The binding consists of removable plastic discs. It comes standard with 0.5″ discs but I quickly upgraded to 1″ which is the perfect size for my needs. They also make a 1.5″ set of discs. These discs allow you to add and remove pages in seconds. This means I only carry the paper I need and not hundreds of blank pages which I may or may not need in the future. I can also remove pages for “finished” behaviors. (Is any behavior truly “finished?”)
Removing Arc Pages

Adding and removing pages to the Arc notebook is a breeze.

My notebook is divided into five sections. One for each dog (Spark, Strata, and Finch), one for notes on DVDs/books/seminars, and one for agility courses. I have further divided each dog’s section into Agility behaviors and Obedience behaviors. (For puppies I would also have a “Life Skills” section for things like sit, down, loose leash walking, recall, etc.) I made more dividers out of cardstock for those secondary sections (more on that below).
Arc Notebook Divider Tabs

I’ve divided the notebook into 5 sections: one for each dog, one for DVD & seminar notes, and one for course maps.

Because the paper is customizable, I have regular lined paper in the DVD/books section, graph paper in the courses section, and this AWESOME “project planner” paper in the dogs’ sections. Here’s a picture of the project planner paper in action for Spark’s 2×2 weave pole training.
Weave Pole Training Record Keeping

Spark’s first weave pole training sessions are recorded on these “project paper” sheets. I find the space on the left is ideal for drawing 2×2 diagrams.

I can draw quick diagrams or outline bullet-point criteria for a behavior on the left, record my sessions on the right, and reiterate key points on the bottom. Needless to say most behaviors need several sheets of paper, so I just clip ‘em all together with a paper clip.
Sticky Tabs in Arc Notebook

The top of the notebook shows each section divided into “Agility” and “Obedience.” Pages for each individual behavior are paper-clipped together. (Pro tip: cascade the paper clips so the notebook closes flat. Why didn’t anyone teach me that in school?!)

Here’s the mind-blowing part: You are by no means limited to using the paper and dividers that Staples sells. You can buy a punch and add whatever you want to your notebook. (That said – the Arc accessories are extremely affordable and well-designed. I’m impressed with everything I have purchased so far!) That’s how I made more dividers – I bought cardstock at a craft store, cut it in half, and punched it:
Custom Cardstock Arc Dividers

Isn’t the punched-out dog paw print cute?! That tool was another Michael’s find.

The possibilities are endless! Agility competitors can punch course maps & copies of score sheets to keep for future reference. (No picture – I haven’t felt the need to actually do that yet.) If you opt for a letter-sized (8.5″ x 11″) notebook you could punch handouts from seminar presenters. I just started punching my trial premiums to keep with my calendar in my letter-sized planner. Staples sells a desk-sized punch for about $45, but I bought a travel-sized punch from Levenger through Amazon for $20. (The Levenger and Arc systems are completely interchangeable. Levenger is much pricier, but they have some drool-worthy notebooks!) The travel-sized punch is very portable and would be easy to keep in your car or training bag if you wanted to punch things at a trial. Well, there you have it. I hope this post has piqued your interest in the Arc notebook line. They often go on sale for 30-40% off, so keep an eye on your Staples weekly ad. I also heard through the grapevine that they have a new line of quilted leather covers coming out this month! If you have questions about the system, post a comment and I’m happy to answer it for you! Disclaimer: Staples has provided me no compensation whatsoever for this blog post. I’m just a happy customer! Maybe they’ll see this and send me free refill pages, though? ;)


Finch Goes to the Agility Trial

Finch on Motel Bed

Finchy says, “I like staying at hotels! Sleeping on the bed is fun.”

Finch has progressed by leaps and bounds. His reactivity toward people is almost non-existent at this point. Unless they have a strange object or do something very threatening, they won’t scare Finch. Recent “tests” in my neighborhood have included multiple kids riding one bicycle at the same time, joggers carrying umbrellas, and a sight-impaired man using a pole as an aid. Finchy says, “No big deal!” Our goal is that Finch can one day compete at an agility trial with his brothers. He loves doing agility and is more of a “natural” than any dog I’ve worked with – it’s like he popped out of the womb knowing how to balance on narrow objects and use his legs independently. Jumping 16″ is a breeze. He learned the entire chute obstacle in 3 clicks. Ninja spaniel! The next stage of Finch’s training is all about building his comfort level with unfamiliar dogs. Previously Finch has attended some of our Reactive Recovery classes which helped lay the foundation that other dogs = treats & toys from me. But with my busy trial schedule, I could no longer get to RR, so our opportunities to train around other dogs have been few and far between. Because Finch has done so well with people we decided to try bringing him to some outdoor shows. In particular, the events at Westfield Fairgrounds are particularly “Finch friendly” as the show site is large, with plenty of open barns and small buildings to act as visual barriers. Basically, I can easily manipulate Finch’s level of exposure there. So last weekend we packed all three of the boys in the car and headed off to Pioneer Valley Kennel Club’s agility trial. I came ready with a full squeeze tube of peanut butter, two bags of Orijen duck treats (still his favorite!), and his beloved orange nubby ball. Equally important was all the gear we brought to keep the car cool, since we kept Finch crated in the car when I wasn’t training him. I’m going to cover warm weather car gear in a separate post. When I wasn’t walking a course or running Strata, I was off training Finch. Here’s a summary of his experiences that weekend:
  • In the “too much, too soon” category we encountered two Briards in an exercise pen that exploded in a fit of barking when Finch looked at them from a distance of about 20′. Finch responded in kind.
  • The good news is that later on, when the dogs had fallen asleep, Finch got lots of opportunities to earn rewards for looking at them. By the end of the day on Sunday, both he and the Briards seemed quite comfortable with one another at this distance.
  • Finch practiced matwork when the rings were busy and dogs weren’t visiting our section of the fairgrounds. Shame on me – I forgot his “special” mat that we use for relaxation – but it didn’t seem to matter; he generalized his “flop over and chill out” response to the dog bed I keep in the car crate.
  • He got to watch dogs of different breeds pass by at a distance of 30-50′: Labs, German Shepherds, lots of shelties, a Bulldog, Standard Poodles, Goldens, and a few Border Collies.
  • Finch thought the hotel was great fun! He enjoyed wrestling with his brothers and sleeping on the bed (a rare treat). Something woke me up in the middle of the night and I looked down to find Finch crammed between me and Dan, sound asleep on his back, his paws twitching as he dreamt. SO cute!
  • On Sunday, he walked past a Flat-Coated Retriever at a distance of about 25′. He kept a nice loose leash and looked at the other dog softly, with no intensity or excitement.
  • The cherry on top: as the show quieted down at the end of the day on Sunday, enough cars and tents left the ringside area that Finch could watch dogs running in the ring at a distance of 80′. He thought this was *very* interesting but did not go over threshold, even when noisy and fast dogs ran!
I’m so proud of all that Finch accomplished. This weekend was perfect for expanding his horizons and learning how to be calm and focused around other dogs. Dan and I are already checking our calendar to find out when we can bring him to another show!


How Can I Prevent My Puppy From Becoming Fearful of Thunderstorms?

Lightning Strikes

Try to be home during your puppy’s first thunderstorm. (Photo Credit: Leszek Leszczynski)

“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Ain’t that the truth! Owners who have lived with or known a dog that was terrified of fireworks or thunderstorms often as if there is any way to help make sure their new puppy doesn’t suffer the same fate. If you have a new puppy or a recently adopted adult dog, here are some quick tips to follow this season.
  • Try hard to be home for your dog’s first thunderstorm/fireworks display. If it’s at all possible, don’t leave your new addition home in a crate to “ride out the storm” alone. You want to be with your pup to try to distract them from the noise.
  • Know when fireworks are coming, not only in your own town, but in surrounding towns as well. Don’t be taken by surprise. (Check your local newspaper, or do a quick Google search. Locally, The Patriot Ledger generally publishes a list of all towns’ 4th of July celebrations, which is quite handy.)
  • Pair scary sounds with tasty treats or fun games. When a storm rolls in or the fireworks display begins, fill a food-stuffable toy like a Kong with cream cheese or peanut butter, or bring out a tug toy for a fun (indoor) game to keep your puppy’s focus off the storm. Cheer on your puppy for bravely listening to the sounds without reacting. (No thunderstorms on the forecast? Use Legacy Canine’s Puppy Habituation CD. The tracks contain thunderstorms, fireworks, gunshots, and more.)
  • Create background noise. Turn on the TV or radio so the loud booms won’t be so obvious.
  • DON’T bring your dog to see the fireworks. Our dogs’ sense of hearing is many times better than our own. What is loud to us is downright painful for them to listen to. Fireworks displays are not safe places to bring a dog – beyond the noise, they are hot, crowded, and full of unsupervised children.


Help! My Dog is Afraid of Fireworks or Thunderstorms

Scared Puppy

Does this look familiar? If so, experiment with management and training techniques to help your pup.

Summer is upon us, and the 4th of July is less than two weeks away. Most dogs adore what summer brings: romping in the backyard after work, going for a swim, barbecue leftovers, vacation time with you – but for a select few, the fun is tempered by the scary sounds of fireworks and thunder coming from above. If you loathe what these noises, read on for some tips to keep your dog comfortable with fireworks and thunderstorms.

Try Some Products

If you already know your dog has noise-phobia, here are a variety of products you can experiment with. The great thing about these is that you can use most of them at the same time. Don’t think of this as a science experiment, where you want to change one variable at a time. Try as many techniques as you can to get your dog comfortable as soon as possible.
  • Aromatherapy: There are a variety of aromatherapy products on the market. Look for one that has lavender and chamomile, such as Aromadog Chill Out spray.
  • Thundershirt: This is an anti-anxiety body wrap that I have used on many dogs, including my own, for a variety of anxiety-related problems. It is satisfaction guaranteed, so if it doesn’t work for your dog, you can return it for a full refund.
  • Dog Appeasing Pheromone: This product is now sold as Adaptil. It’s available as a spray, which you can apply directly to your dog’s bed, and as a plug-in which you can put near your dog’s crate. I recommend the plug-in for dogs with noise phobia. The pheromones are odorless and colorless, so you can use them just about anywhere. In my experience, they are particularly effective with puppies.
  • Homeopathic Remedies: There are others out there, but Bach Pet Rescue Remedy is a classic. It can be put in the dog’s water or administered directly to the mouth before or during a storm.

Training Techniques

Before the next thunderstorm or fireworks display, you can do some desensitization and counter-conditioning exercises with your dog. The best way to do this is with recorded thunder and firework sounds. The best resource I have found for these sounds are Legacy Canine’s Sounds Good CDs of Thunderstorms and Fireworks. (If you haven’t used your CD player since 2004, there are also digital downloads of these tracks, too.) I have several of the Sounds Good CDs in my collection and they are a wonderful resource. There are directions to follow on the CDs, but in a nutshell, you play the sounds at a low volume that does not elicit a reaction from your dog, while engaging your dog in an activity that she enjoys such as playing with a toy or eating a meal. Over time, you increase the volume of the sounds as long as your dog continues to stay relaxed.

During the Event

After implementing management techniques and proactively working to change your dog’s association with these scary sounds, the next step is to prepare for the actual thunderstorm or fireworks display. If your dog is mildly fearful or just nervous, try distracting her with a favorite toy or special snack, like melted cheese in a Kong. If she is too nervous to do this, follow her lead. Stay near her regardless of what she is doing. Some dogs want to pace around, so situate yourself near her path and speak soothingly to her as she walks by. If she wants to hide, hanker down beside her hiding spot with a good book and read aloud to her. From time to time, offer a treat or petting. (Watch your dog’s body language to judge if she’s enjoying your touch or not.) If this training technique sounds totally counter-intuitive to you, check out this great blog post by Patricia McConnell which explains why you can’t reinforce fear.

A Word About Medication

Do not fear pharmaceutical intervention. True thunderstorm anxiety is just that, anxiety, a brain chemistry issue. Your dog is experiencing intense emotions and you have no control whatsoever over the trigger. If your dog is uncomfortable during these events, you owe it to her to ask your veterinarian for help. There are many prescription drugs that can help with your dog’s anxiety, and only your veterinarian can help you decide if your dog is a candidate for medication and, if so, which medication is appropriate. Many owners delay getting help for their dog, only to experience regret when they see how relaxed and happy their dog is when medicated. Do what’s right for you dog and leave all options – pharmaceutical and otherwise – on the table.

Coming Soon…

Later this week, I’ll share some techniques for making sure your new puppy or recently adopted dog doesn’t become afraid of thunderstorms or fireworks. Stay tuned!


What Makes a Good Foundation Agility Class?

In my earlier post about Puppies in Agility Classes, I laid out an informal definition of a foundation agility class. To elaborate on that, here’s what I think a good foundation agility class should encompass:

A good foundation agility program should grow the dog and handler’s teamwork and communication first. Only then should the team move on to building confidence and competence on agility equipment. My goal is to keep the dog safe and happy while sparking the handler’s interest in what’s to come as the dog progresses.
A good foundation agility class should not focus on the actual pieces of agility equipment, but on building the skills the dogs and handlers need to teach those obstacles safely and easily the first time, hopefully eliminating the need to “re-train” anything during the dog’s lifetime.

What skills are necessary?

Focus is an important foundation skill that should never be taken for granted.

Focus is an important foundation skill that should never be taken for granted.

For the dog, they include:
  • Offering behavior. If the dog approaches a novel object it should try a variety of behaviors to earn rewards – looking at it, climbing on it, walking around it, picking it up in their mouths, etc.
  • Focus on the handler, even in the face of distractions. Agility classes and trials are very busy places and it’s easy to lose a dog’s attention. “Focus” is a behavior that needs to be taught and maintained, not taken for granted!
  • At least twenty seconds of stillness, which evolves into a start-line stay, table position, and contact position.
  • Relaxation in a crate. Agility dogs spend a lot of time in crates. The sooner they learn to chill out and take a nap, the better.
  • Sit and down promptly on one cue.
And for the handler:
  • Solid clicker training skills: timing, criteria, reward placement, record keeping.
  • Patience and ability to free-shape a behavior. I’m not totally against luring, but I find most new students use it as a crutch and try to lure the dog on/over/around/through everything, which later interferes with independent obstacle performance.
  • Basic performance of front, rear, and blind crosses. These will be explained in depth in classes that include sequencing, but I find they can be very challenging to some handlers so I like to give them a head start.
  • The ability to motivate their dog using a variety of rewards – play, treats, toys, and games.

The Big Picture

When I teach foundation classes, every step of the way I explain or show how the skill we are working on ties into the “big picture” of competing in agility with our dogs. I explain these skills as part of the dogs’ future warm-up routine or as a prerequisite for a particular piece of equipment. In the spirit of “positive reinforcement for all”, pieces of agility equipment are introduced after the dog and handler have trained the necessary prerequisite behavior. As an example, students that come to class having practiced “down” and stays all week get to train on the table at class.

It’s Not That Boring

This may seem slow when its written out like this, but most adult dogs only need one, six-week session of a foundation class before they’re ready to tackle agility equipment. It really depends on the dog and handler team and what they have learned before they join class. If the dog has only received punishment-based training and the handler has never heard of clicker training before, they will need more time at this foundation level as compared to an experienced hobby trainer who has competed in other sports and is now dabbling in agility. If you’ve taken a foundation agility class, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Was it a good experience for you and your dog? What do you think makes a good foundation class?


Puppies in Agility Classes

Shetland Sheepdog Puppies Tugging

How young is too young to start agility training? Well, it’s never too young to start playing!

Later this week, I’ll be launching my new dog agility training program with an Open House event that is open to all. I’m incredibly excited about this new endeavor and can’t wait to start teaching classes next week! I have been fielding a lot of questions about agility classes, particularly since I am offering a foundation program, and I’d like to address some of those questions here. One question that comes up often is, “Can my puppy come to agility class?” Potential students want to know how young is too young. Even when it comes to basic manners and obedience training, the myth of “puppies need to be six months old to begin training” persists. It’s not true for basic training, and it’s definitely not true for agility.

Safety First

Well-meaning veterinarians often advise their clients to wait until their dogs are “done growing” before starting agility classes, lest they damage their growth plates due to excessive trauma or impact. It’s absolutely true that puppies should wait until their growth plates are closed before learning to jump, weave, or perform the teeter. But what these veterinarians are missing is that a good foundation agility class doesn’t focus on jumping, weaving, or contacts. Bear in mind that I’m talking about foundation agility classes, as in, building a “foundation” with the goal of enjoying the sport for years to come, and possibly even competing. I am not talking about “pet agility” classes designed to be a one-time, four- to six-week exposure to the sport – in many cases, these classes are taught by instructors unfamiliar with the sport of agility who may unknowingly push youngsters too soon. (What makes a “good” agility class is up for discussion, and I plan to cover that in one of my next blog posts.)
Baby Strata Tugging

Baby Strata practices tugging at an outdoor agility trial.

Build a Strong Foundation

There is so much more to agility than obstacle performance. As a prerequisite for learning the individual pieces of equipment, puppies need to have a solid bond and clear communication with their owner. Owners need to know what treats, toys, games, and training techniques work well for their puppies. This is determined through lots of play – playing with and without toys, in different environments, and around other dogs and people. Agility is one huge game, and if your dog doesn’t want to play with you, you’re in the weeds! Additionally, puppies need to know how to use their bodies before we ask them to negotiate potentially dangerous pieces of equipment. This is accomplished by teaching tricks, such as backing up in a straight line, spinning in either direction, waving a front paw, and more. A great analogy to this training is human gymnastics training. Young children attend “tumbling” classes to learn basic techniques on the floor before they start climbing on equipment and attempt to perform Olympic-level routines! Much of agility happens between obstacles. On a course, handlers need to be able to get their dog from Point A to Point B quickly and efficiently, with no leash, lure, or other training aids. There are also different ways to change sides in agility, and both the handler and the dog need to learn those cues to communicate effectively when equipment is involved. Add all of these skills up, and you can see why many foundation agility classes don’t include any agility obstacles at all! Or if they do, it’s just a couple, like a low table or a short tunnel. There is just so much to teach and perfect. Why rush a young dog onto equipment before the foundation is strong?

A Personal Example

To put all of this into perspective, Spark just turned 11 months old. He has gone through tunnels, chutes, and on a table. That’s it for competition “agility equipment”. He’s learned elements of other pieces of equipment, like how to wrap his body tightly around a jump wing and run at full speed across a dogwalk plank, too. That doesn’t seem like a lot. But Spark will play with me with any toy, anywhere, even ringside at an agility trial. His start-line stay is very strong – we practice that at shows, too. He knows all of the tricks that I like to incorporate into my dogs’ warm-up routines before we train or compete. He will run at my side off-leash and reads my acceleration, deceleration, and front and rear crosses. He relaxes in a crate, even if I am training one of my other dogs nearby. When he starts learning those other pieces of equipment next month, the process should go pretty smoothly. I won’t have to worry about him taking off in the middle of training, ignoring my toys and treats, giving up quickly if he can’t figure out what the new task is, or getting overly distracted by the presence of other dogs. Why? Because that is what we have been working on for the last seven months!

In Conclusion

Training time is a precious commodity for me, as it is for most of my students, and I choose to spend it developing a solid foundation for the physical and mental stresses of agility while being mindful of current research on physical development of puppies. If your instructor shares my philosophy on puppy training, you can go right ahead and jump into a foundation agility program with your puppy.


ClickerExpo 2013 Recap

I am dreadfully behind in blogging! March was a very exciting month and I’m eager to share the highlights with all of you. Strata and I attended ClickerExpo 2013 in Stamford, CT. This was my third ClickerExpo and every year it just gets better and better. It is such a positive experience – three hundred clicker trainers in a hotel together is a guarantee of a low-stress environment that is perfect to learn in! I started the three-day weekend with a session called “Advanced Shaping for the Agility Trainer” by Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh. My partner in crime was Casey Lomonaco from Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training, a fellow Karen Pryor Academy graduate from New York. She and I were asked to bring our dogs to demonstrate some of the techniques. We had a blast breaking down the skills for both dogs and handlers. I attended a lecture taught by Eva and Emelie on Sunday as well, and have already started incorporating their “stationing” technique into my classes. This was followed by a lunch for KPA graduates, students, and faculty and it was great to hear what other Certified Training Partners are up to! There are over 500 graduates worldwide now, involved with many species and using clicker training in a variety of applications including competitive animal sports, service dog training, TAGteach (clicker training for people), horseback riding, and veterinary care. I was honored to be in such great company! Another highlight of my weekend was attending a lecture and hands-on training lab with Michele Pouliot about “Strategic Reinforcement”. Michele is a champion canine freestyle competitor, and her “day job” is working with Guide Dogs for the Blind, a service dog organization which has switched from “traditional training” (using physical corrections) to clicker training with outstanding results. I always learn something new from Michele and this was no exception. Strategic reinforcement refers to what you do after the click and how that can influence training. It seems counterintuitive at first – what you click is what you get, right? Yes, but how and where you reward the dog (or cat, or horse, etc.) can set the dog up for the next repetition for the behavior. Not planning a reinforcement strategy can hinder your training by making it harder for your dog to repeat the clicked behavior. (If you’re familiar with Alexandra Kurland’s “loopy training” philosophy, strategic reinforcement and loopy training are like peas in a pod.) I had a “lightbulb moment” during the training lab. I have worked on competition obedience behaviors with Strata in the hopes to title him in AKC and UKC obedience, but I was having trouble perfecting heel position (where he stands at my side). Just by changing where I presented his treat, I was able to set him up for the next repetition perfectly. In one five-minute training session at Expo, I was able to teach Strata the behavior we had struggled with for weeks. And it “stuck” – he offered it later that night, and again during our training sessions at home! Other sessions and labs we enjoyed included Ken Ramirez’ “Effective Non-Food Reinforcement”, where I had another “lightbulb moment” on the use of toys in training (specifically, why toys seem to be rewarding to dogs), and Kay Laurence’s “Connected Walking”, which is a philosophy of teaching dogs and owners to enjoy walks together. If you’re thinking about attending ClickerExpo next year, I highly recommend it! Every year I learn new things and leave feeling energized about training both my own dogs and my students. The east coast location next year is Norfolk, Virginia, March 28th-30th. As long as it doesn’t interfere with AKC Nationals, I will be there! (And if it does, I might just fly out to California for the west coast ClickerExpo.) My next “catch-up” post will be about AKC Agility Nationals in Tulsa, OK. Stay tuned!