There has been a lot of discussion lately on how much the puppies should be trained and whether or not training destroys their happy puppyhood. Saying puppies shouldn’t be trained for sports is kind of like saying that kid’s shouldn’t do sports because of the pictures google spits out if you ask him about children training gymnastic in China. Sadly there is no doubt that many kids around the world are over trained and abused for the purposes of a professional sport, but there are even larger population of those, who enjoy sport for what it is. A healthy, fun experience and activity you can enjoy with friends. Yes there are over ambitious parents, who expect their kids to be the next world champions, but there is also even greater number of those, who want their kid to have healthy dosage of fun away from all the electronics around them. See where I am going with it?
Personally I don’t consider my agility dogs to be professional athletes, because they don’t train even nearly as much as the human athletes do. But one thing is certain. Dogs need some level of physical fitness in order to be able to do agility in a safe way. Sadly many dogs you can see on the obstacles are way below this level. Their lack of coordination, quickness, agility or flexibility is very often the reason for all sorts of mistakes, and the worst part is – it is not even recognized. More often than not, trainers will start questioning their method or simply blaming the dog, without realizing that maybe the dog knows what he needs to do, but can’t really do it right.
So back to puppies…
Puppy time is time for bonding. Getting to know your new friend. It is time for all sorts of games, having tons of fun and new experience and most importantly – it is time to build trust.
There are so many things I could write about this, but at this point, let me stay focused on a physical part of puppy training.
Some theory first – there are 6 major components of fitness: strength, power, balance, flexibility, endurance and coordination. These components are to some degree hereditary. It is hard to imagine a Newfoundland outrun a greyhound in a short distance race, no matter now much he trains for it. But we can definitely affect those components with training as well, more so if we start young.
“an ability of a joint to bend, stretch and twist through a range of motion without injury”
or in simple terms – ability to move fluently. Stiffness of certain joints or body parts can largely increase the possibility for an injury. Just like children, puppies are way more flexible as adult dogs and I try my best to maintain as much of that “puppy flex” as possible. Teaching them to wrap objects, “chase a tail” in both directions, bow, extend their hind legs in a “frog” position, cross their legs… are great tricks for active stretching and later on they became an important part of my worm up routine. Besides teaching tricks, there is also another fun part of flexibility training – cuddling. Touching them when they are calm and sleepy is not only a great bonding experience, I slowly get them used to be relaxed and let me move their joints in different directions, making sure they are ok with it once I start to cool them off after trainings.
Another major part of training for my puppies is coordination or simply the ability to use all the body parts right.
Good coordination is especially important with those high drive “do before you think” dogs like šČene.
When she was really young, she was just a self destructive little machine. Letting her run free was probably the most dangerous activity she could do, because she just had no self-preservation feeling what so ever. See when things go fast, there is not much time to shift to plan b when plan a is not working. Believe me I felt that every time I meet an obstacle a bit to closely (for those who don’t know me that well yet, see my epic AWC fail in 2010…). So there is a whole lot of coordination exercises I do with my puppies. Cavaletti work, walking backwards, walking backwards uphill or up the stairs, lifting legs in different combinations (left side, right side, diagonal, individual), stepping on small surfaces, narrow surfaces, moving objects…
Balance exercises are vital for maintaining the strength of inner muscles, small tiny muscles lying deeper than those big flashy muscles that usually steal all the attention. If the inner muscles are out of work, they get week and the muscle imbalance appears – another great risk for injury. The “tiny ones” get exercised on balance boards, gym pillows and yoga balls.
Strength and power are strongly related to each other and they are also hereditary in a very big percentage. Meaning there is no training that would turn a “marathon runner” into a “sprinter”. Luckily for us agility is not a short distance run and the core speed is not the most important part of it. Good course times usually comes from other abilities like tight and fluent turns, fast contacts and choosing the best possible line through the course. Building up “fast twitch muscles” responsible for quickness is something puppies are not yet able to do, but I will try my best to stimulate their nervous system for a quick response. It has a lot to do with motivation (the more they want something, more effort they will put in their actions), but it is not enough to be quick in the mind. The message from the head needs to find the quickest way to the feet so I try to stimulate and reward fast reactions to a simple cue. Remember – the dog can only do something fast if knows what we want really well, so make sure you do the explaining part well enough before you start asking for speed.
Another important part of training my puppy is walks. Running around freely, exploring, playing with other dogs is not only vital for physical, but also mental development. As they get pass their puberty, I will do some endurance training with them as well; bikejoring, swimming, long hikes,… Not so much because we would need that, it is just that we love being outside a lot.
So no, I never train my puppies to become champions. I train them to be healthy.