So now that your puppy has grown up a bit and looks a little bit less like a puppy and more like a proper dog, it can be tempting to up the game in terms of training at this point. It is at this age that I feel people get a bit too excited about getting their dog trained up and it’s really important to remember your dog is still a puppy no matter how grown up they now look.
This is where the debate kicks in. In many sled dog kennels the youngsters will begin going out in harness in teams (and this is the crucial thing) from about 6 months to learn the ropes. Whilst that might be all well and good for a big kennel where larger teams of dogs are run together and the pull is distributed between the team, it is not the same as one dog pulling your weight on it’s own. It is also worth pointing out that many of these dogs are not expected to have long running careers and although many do, there is a big difference between a racing kennel dogs’ experience and your pet dog.
It has been proven that a dogs’ growth plates do not fully close until they are a lot older and in the case of some of the bigger dog breeds, 2 years is normal for full skeletal maturity and full maturity isn’t reached until the dog is about 3 years old. With this in mind, wouldn’t you rather wait a few months and ensure you will not be harming your dog? I’m not a fan of putting a specific date on when you should start doing proper harness training, as every dog is an individual and should be assessed on their own development, not against other breeds or even other individual dogs of the same breed.
For example you might get one GSP (German Shorthaired Pointer) who when fully grown can weigh in excess of 35 kgs and will have to have developed the bone and muscle structure to support that weight before doing any pulling in harness. Then another GSP who barely weighs in at 20 kgs and will be physically fully grown a lot quicker than the bigger, heavier dog. Even this doesn’t take into account the dogs’ own ‘head space’ and this is something I feel is equally as important as their physical development.
To explain this further, some dogs (like some people!) mature a lot slower mentally than others and need more time to process information to be able to follow commands confidently. If you’ve got a pup who is easily distracted or nervous in new surroundings, it is worth building the dogs confidence in both you, and new situations, before you expect them to work for you, particularly in a racing environment. Unfortunately there are some dogs who don’t get the time they need to learn about working in harness and when put in a race situation can become very nervous or even aggressive if they are not confident, so it is really, really, important you go at your dogs’ individual pace when considering increasing the training you’re doing with your dog.
My own pup at the time of writing is 7 months old and we’ve been doing a lot of training but it might not be the type of training you would necessarily expect when talking about training a dog for harness sports. We go to new places almost daily and don’t stick to the same walking routes, so that he encounters new things all the time. I use the voice commands consistently on all our walks and I am really keen to get a good ‘wait’ command instilled in his brain (because he’s already way bigger and stronger than I had anticipated!) so we stop regularly to reinforce this. In addition to this, I had started to allow him to free run while I incorporated a jog into some of our walks. Recently his prey drive has kicked in however, so this has limited how much free running he can do.
In terms of being in a harness, he has had a walking harness from day 1 and now he is starting to pull into the harness (as he sees the others doing) I have not discouraged this. I have tried some of the longer harnesses on him at home just to see what he thinks of having something longer down his back, as I believe he will need a longer harness eventually. At the moment he doesn’t like having something over his back, so we’ll need to do some more work on that to make sure he’s happy with straps and something pulling over the length of him.
We’ve also been to a few races and when I’ve had a chance I’ve had him out and about meeting as many dogs as we can, getting him used to being around lots of people, dogs, and of course the noise associated with the start of a race! I don’t think the importance of getting them used to this can be overstated, as the last thing you want is your dog to feel stressed when running in harness around other dogs and so if they are already comfortable and happy around lots of dogs, this can only be a good thing. I also make sure he’s not allowed to play with every dog we see, as this can be a problem too. You don’t want your dog to be pestering others when out running, so ensuring you can still get your dog to focus on you is very important.
Other than increasing the time and distances of our walks and incorporating the odd jog, we haven’t done much else different in terms of exercise, Yogi has been growing a fair bit and he’s going to be quite tall, so I want to limit how much he does to ensure he doesn’t suffer later on in life. Above all he’s just enjoying still being a puppy and I think it’s crucial to allow your dog the time to be a puppy as long as they need and not push them into something too soon which could put them off further down the line.
So for now, I’m happy he’s learning what he needs to and he’s loving his life as sidekick and van traveller. Training in harness will only increase when I’m certain he’s developed enough both physically and mentally and I’ll post another blog update when we start with the really fun stuff!