After obedience, the next dog sport to introduce your show puppy to is agility. No, I’m not talking weave poles or jumping – that’s too much stress for your growing puppy’s joints! However, many exercises that agility exhibitors use can help your pup in the show ring. You do not need to aim for a MACH (Master Agility Champion title), though I know at least two breeds whose National Specialties were won by conformation champions who had MACHs.
Agility Builds Confidence
A pup who has mastered the challenge of running through a tunnel or walking a plank on the ground will be bolder in everything he does. That pup will handle new experiences better because he’s learned how to deal with new things coming at him in a positive and less stressful atmosphere. When he’s dealt with these minor challenges, he will handle the noise, new surfaces and many new experiences at his first indoor show with a more confident attitude. After all, he’s managed new things in the past successfully.
If you have shown at the Garden or any indoor show with boards over ice, you know that the floor wobbles in places. You can identify the area by watching experienced show dogs gait around the ring. Lovely, smooth movement, then bang – the dogs hit the wobbly area! Some dogs leap sideways, some simply break gait and gallop, others bolt in fear. A few dogs simply move on over and around. Could that make the difference between BOB or walking? It certainly could with a ring full of top quality dogs.
To prepare your puppy for weird footing, make or borrow a wobble board. It’s a piece of plywood with a ball attached underneath. The board will wobble slightly when your pup steps on it. An easy substitute for a small to medium breed or younger pups is a flying saucer – one of those plastic circles kids use to slide down snowy hills in the winter.
Don’t force your pup onto these items. Simply toss treats or food onto them, and let your pup explore by himself. Some pups actually enjoy the movement, learning to stand in the middle and shift their weight to make it move.
So what else can you expose your future BIS dog to? If you have or can get access to an agility tunnel – great! Running through a tunnel builds confidence and will not strain your pup’s joints at all. The easiest way to teach this is to have your pup follow another dog or pup. If no “teacher” canine is available, scrunch the tunnel up and toss a treat or toy through. Alternatively you can go to one side, while a friend holds your pup at the other end. You call, and the pup runs through to you. If possible, choose a light-colored tunnel to start out. Pups seem to be a bit timid heading into a dark tunnel. Keep it straight so that your pup can see the light at the end.
If you don’t have a real agility tunnel, you can often find less expensive ones made for children. They work exactly the same as a full-size tunnel, but are made of lighter, less durable materials. Another option is to try a hula hoop from the dollar store. It may not seem like much to you, but some dogs will hesitate to go through even a hoop. Again – toss a toy or treat through to encourage your pup.
With either the hoop or the tunnel, be sure to party when your pup goes through to reinforce to him that this is a fun activity. Puppies as young as 4 weeks can play with a tunnel, but you can expose your pup to one at any age. Even giant breed pups who have to duck to get through usually enjoy tunnels.
Build Rear-End Awareness and Coordination
Coordination may not be a big deal if you have a Chihuahua pup, but puppies ranging from medium to giant size often can use some help with coordination. It is almost as if many big pups go through a stage when the growth of nerves doesn’t keep up with muscle and bone development. We can all picture the 6-month-old Dane who looks like his front and rear are moving at two different speeds.
Rear-end awareness and coordination can be taught in a number of easy ways. If you have space to lay out a flat ladder on the ground, walk your pup along it so he has to step over the rungs. If his rear slips out to the side, simply guide him back on track using a treat or toy. There is no danger since the ladder is on the ground. You can buy PVC ladders to practice this, including ones that are raised when flipped over to add more difficulty as your pup grows.
You can create a similar exercise by setting up a cavalletti. Horsemen use these frequently to improve extension and coordination. Cavalletti is a series of bars that you can guide your pup over. Alternatively, have someone hold the pup at one end, then call him to you. Remember, you don’t really want a young pup to jump. However, small hops or lifting the legs as he trots or gallops is fine.
You can eventually work the cavalletti or poles to space them to force your pup to extend to move smoothly through the series. A set of five or six can be set up in a hallway so your pup has to come through them to reach you. This extension will then carry over to the breed ring.
While your pup does not need to try the bridge-like dogwalk – even a mini dogwalk – walking a plank flat on the ground can be a challenge in itself. Depending on your pup’s size, get an 8- or 12-inch wide board. Your pup then has to walk on the board. At first his rear may tend to slip off, but gently guide it back on, treat and praise. If you use a clicker, click when his feet are on the board. As he becomes more skilled, you may want to raise the board a bit; just tuck some bricks under it. Eventually you can move up to concrete cinder blocks under the board.
Many training centers have mini dogwalks, A-frames and teeter-totters or wobble boards, as well as custom-made ladders, for their puppy classes. If you have a class that uses them, great! However, your homemade versions will work just as well.
A Pause Table’s Purpose
Who cares about the pause table, you ask? You do, because it is similar to the stand used by show photographers for those great win photos! At its shortest height, the pause table is about 4 to 8 inches tall, which is fine for most pups to step up on. If your pup has already “walked the plank,” the table will seem like an easy, new game.
Start by simply encouraging your pup onto the pause table at a low setting. You can toss a treat onto the table or lure him up with one in your hand. Make sure the table has a no-slip surface so he doesn’t slide and get scared. Once your pup is up on the table, he can practice his puppy aerobics or simply work on his show stack. Again, use plenty of treats and praise. When you are done, have your pup calmly hop off – don’t allow him to do a flying leap as he could get hurt.
A pup who has been exposed to this will be much easier to set up for his show photos. At one show, my 10-month-old Belgian Tervuren pup calmly stepped up, then set up for her photo immediately. This was after we waited for almost five minutes for an adult Doberman Pinscher to agree to stand on the box. The photographer will thank you for having a cooperative pup and so will all the other exhibitors waiting in line.
With all of these agility “tricks,” your pup is learning to handle his body and gaining confidence. It’s a win-win situation all round!