The Puppy Diary – Continuing to train (6-9 months)

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.

Your dog might look grown up but is still a puppy on the inside (Photo courtesy of Becky Harding)

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.

Dogs can take up to 3 years to reach full maturity, so why not let them stay puppies for as long as possible? (Photo courtesy of Becky Harding)

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.

Every dog is an individual when it comes to development both physically and mentally (Photo courtesy of Becky Harding)

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.

Yogi has done a little bit of free running now

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.

Yogi has not been discouraged from pulling into the harness on walks

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.

Yogi has been enjoying watching from the sidelines at events

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!

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Embracing the ‘dawdler’

Team Thomas’ canine contingent is currently made up of three rescued collie crosses ranging in age and each of them is very individual. For a start they are all crossed with a different breed of dog which instantly sets them apart from each other and gives them distinctive qualities which are breed specific. For example, Donnie, the youngest is a ‘Sprollie’ Springer Spaniel cross collie and he is always darting around in the undergrowth sniffing out trouble as I’m sure many Springer owners can relate to. Judo, the ‘middle child’ is collie cross lurcher (we think) he has definite sight hound qualities and if he sees something to chase – is gone! Tegan, the oldest, is collie cross husky and therefore you’d think she would be the best placed in the team for the job of pulling in harness, being that huskies have for many hundreds of years been successfully used as sled dogs. However, when canicrossing, bikejoring or even scootering, Tegan is a dawdler.

Although Tegan is my sled dog cross who should be more genetically predisposed to pull, she is in fact, my dawdler- Photo courtesy of Rachel Lukoi Blakemore

Although Tegan is my sled dog cross who should be more genetically predisposed to pull, she is in fact, my dawdler- Photo courtesy of Rachel Lukoi Blakemore

What I mean by this is that although she makes an effort to pull in certain situations i.e. on the start line of a canicross race or if she sees a squirrel/rabbit/deer dash out in front of us on a training run, ultimately she likes to trot along beside me or even behind me, taking her time and soaking up the environment around her. The two boys are 99.9% of the time in such a rush to get to wherever it is they think we’re going, that they often miss the passing wildlife and have been known to continue running in spite of the fact I am face down behind them and still attached!

I’ve seen many people on dog sport forums asking the question ‘how do I get my dog to pull me better?’ and I can sympathise. If you are a quick runner there is nothing more frustrating than being held back by a dog who just wants to sniff and pootle along beside or behind you. I’m not a fast runner but I do know Tegan can put a lot more effort in than she does a lot of the time because I’ve seen her shift herself very quickly indeed if you rustle a cheese packet!

So how can you get your dawdling dog to speed up? Things I have found that help are as follows:

1. Give them something to chase – another dog or person in front can encourage a dog to speed up. If something interesting is in front, then 9 times out of 10 you can expect your dog to want to follow it and increase its’ speed to do so.

2. Make the routes you run interesting – don’t just follow the same route day after day, not only is it boring for your dog but your dog may well want to stop to mark its’ territory if the route becomes familiar and they begin to adopt it as an extension of its’ own space. Don’t run on wide open fields where your dog has the opportunity to get bored or not know where it’s supposed to run. By running on single track paths through woodland, your dog will find it easier to follow the trail and dogs often prefer this type of running.

3. Connected to this is what surface you are running on. If you’re running on hard surfaces that are uncomfortable for your dog then you might need to re-assess your run routes to incorporate more grassy trails that are nicer for your dogs paws.

Dogs tend to prefer lovely grassy trails over the harder packed trails but if your dog isn't pulling, avoid large open fields with no clear pathway.

Dogs tend to prefer lovely grassy trails over the harder packed trails but if your dog isn’t pulling, avoid large open fields with no clear pathway.

4. Talk to your dog – you might look silly to everyone else but by raising the pitch of your voice, your energy is given a lift too and by increasing your own energy, you can encourage your dog to do the same.

5. Keep your distances short until your dog is keen to run further again. If you make sure you end your run with your dog wanting more then you know your dog is enjoying the running and they will often be more keen if they know they are only covering a shorter distance.

Of course there is another option and that is to embrace the dawdling!

By allowing yourself to set pace with your dog you will still get to where you’re going, just a bit slower and you may even enjoy the extra things you notice around you because you’re not so focused on rushing along to the next thing. In a society where we’re all rushed off our feet all the time, it’s sometimes nice to just appreciate that you’re out with your dog enjoying something together and I for one will try to remember that the next time my ‘dawdler’ is smiling up at me as she stops for the 10th time in as many minutes.

My dawdler and me making our way slowly up a hill! – (Photo/Chris Clark) © Chris Clark 2012