The rule of thumb for introducing puppies to agility is that
a) they should never be forced to do anything they are reluctant to attempt and
b) they should never be asked to jump higher than their elbow height.
By using the clicker, (a) is taken care of, and by using common sense, (b) can also be addressed.
As anyone who has competed can tell you, there is a lot more to agility than just getting the dog to go over a jump. Puppies can certainly learn some of the techniques involved in accurate jumping from a fairly young age, bearing in mind that obviously their understanding and ability to perform will depend on their musculature and co-ordination. Always remember the clicker trainers mantra – “any animal can be taught anything it is physically and mentally capable of doing”. So watch your puppy and make sure that you are not asking him to do something that is outside of his capabilities. I like to teach stays fairly early on (most 8 week old puppies can do a 30 second down stay within about 5 minutes of clicker training during their first class). This not only teaches the puppy self control, but also helps with the wait at the start once the dog is old enough to enter a show.
Why is clicker training preferable to other more traditional types of training? The basic difference between clicker training and other reward-based training is that the animal is told exactly which behaviour earns it a reward. This information is communicated with a distinct sound, a click, which occurs at exactly the same time as the desired behaviour. The reward follows. There is a huge difference between an animal that behaves with purpose, rather than by habit. Clicker trained animals will always try to learn new behaviours. They remember behaviours years later because they were aware of them as they learned them rather than acquiring them without awareness. They develop confidence because they have control over the consequences of their actions. This engenders not only confidence in themselves, but also trust in their handler and great enthusiasm to achieve.
Once the puppy is conditioned to the clicker (i.e. startles on hearing the sound and looks around for its treat), one is ready to begin. I like to start with basic ground work, including:
teaching the puppy to heel on both left and right of the handler (thus ensuring that the muscles on both sides of the body develop evenly and that the pup is able to work on both sides of the handler),
teaching control of back legs by doing ladder work. This also helps puppies who are fortunate enough to have tails how to use them to help with balance.
- Click and treat the puppy for moving between two uprights. You can then place the cross bar flat on the ground and click the pup for moving over it. Some puppies may choose to jump rather than run over even when quite young.
- clicking the pup for running down a straight jumping lane (here you may choose to just use uprights, or you could lay the cross bar flat on the ground). The pup can be taught to run alongside you down the jumps, as well as run ahead of you (perhaps throw a toy ahead to encourage this behaviour and click when it moves ahead of you. The treat here can either be the retention of the toy, or a food treat once you catch up with the pup), and of course a recall down the lane towards you.
- The puppy can be taught to run through an angled jumping lane so that he learns to judge angles and not slam into the uprights.
Here I feel it should be re-iterated that in clicker training no collar or lead is used. The puppy is free to interact (which earns it a click and treat if it performs correctly), and it is free to wander off if it needs a tea break. This freedom engenders trust in the handler, and encourages the puppy to think and problem solve for itself. Often during “tea break time” I’ve found that a dog will solve a problem by itself, and then come back and offer a perfect performance.
Certain of the obstacles can also be introduced to puppies. A fairly regular item in my puppy classes is the tunnel – both collapsed and rigid. Once the puppies have been clicked and treated for going through, it is a battle to keep them out of it! They love it and frequently you see the tunnel bulging whilst 3 or 4 puppies try to race through and get to the other end first. Of course if the pup is a bit nervous, one could squash (or foreshorten) the tunnel up so there isn’t such a great distance to go through. Within a 15 minute session the vast majority of puppies will not only be most willing to rush through the tunnel, but will also go through the rigid tunnel when it is curved into a “U” or an “S” shape.
Other ground work exercises include getting the pup to volunteer to walk the plank. I.e. place a flat plank on the ground and shape the puppy to walk along it. Once again, you can teach it to walk alongside you, go ahead of you (here we generally use a send away to the puppy’s blanket: a very easy exercise for a 10 week old pup), as well as recall along the plank. You could then put a very small branch or pole underneath the plank so that it teeters as the pup walks over. Voila! The beginning of the see-saw.
The A-frame may be taught in a similar way – place it as flat as it will go (mine only lowers to about a metre in height) and click and treat the puppies for going over. If the pup is a tiny breed (pug, min pin etc.) it is often easier to teach them to go over at an angle, rather than attack it straight on. I.e. teach the pup to start at the bottom right hand corner and move to the top left hand corner, and then go down the other side towards the bottom right corner. Just gives the little chap a bit more traction. Does it need to be mentioned that the puppy should never be allowed to lift its head when going over the A-frame or dog walk? Obviously the musculature of a little puppy is not developed and if you, for instance, try and lure your puppy over the obstacle with food held in your hand above the pups head, you are risking serious injury to the puppy’s cervical spine. Keep the head down at all times. Put food on the A-frame if you must, but never feed from your hand. This has a two-fold benefit – not only does the puppy keep its head down (which leads to a faster and more accurate obstacle, as well as lessening the risk of injury), but it also gets the pup thinking that the A-frame is rewarding it, rather than the handler. That way the handler can move well away from the A-frame quite soon, and just ask the pup to run over the obstacle.
A lot of emphasis should also be put on teaching warming up exercises. Be cautious about a lot of repetition of these if you pup is very young. But there is no reason why and 8 week old puppy can’t learn to bow-wow, spin, figure of 8 through your legs, roll over, etc.
As the puppy gets a bit older, one could introduce concepts like back crosses, front pivots etc. And of course the names of the various pieces of equipment. You can quite easily clicker train a puppy to recognise that “over” refers to running between two uprights, rather than zooming through the tunnel; or that “walk on” means totter over the plank instead of trying out the A-frame.
Bending poles are a potential danger zone for dogs whose growth plates have not yet fused. Much better to click and treat your puppy for entering with the first pole on his left hand side rather than getting him to twist his body in and out in an (what is for dog) unnatural manner. You could put up two rows of poles slightly apart from each other, and click your puppy for running down the channel, thus getting him used to have poles on either side. But teaching poles a la clicker is so easy, I tend to leave this obstacle until the dog is a lot older.
It is also fun to make jumps out of strange things e.g. two crates on their sides with a pole on the ground between them; or a couple of unfurled umbrellas on their sides, etc. Not many dogs get to compete with the jumps they have learned on at home, and the sooner they learn to cope with all sorts of visual stimuli the better. Click and treat for confident approaches to whatever strange articles you manage to think up.
In closing, a word of caution. Remember that what you click is what you get. So if your timing is bad and you click the puppy at the wrong moment, that is what the pup is likely to repeat. And never forget the golden rule – every click is followed by a treat, even if you made a mistake and clicked at the wrong time.
Agility is a wonderful sport for both handlers and dogs. Have fun with your puppy, but never forget that at his tender age it is better to err on the side of caution. Rather do too little strenuous exercise than risk an injury that might impair his chances of success in later life.