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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Voice Commands – Who, What, Why, When & How?

Voice commands are a big part of training in the dog sports and it’s important you get them right for you to get the best from your dog, so we thought we would do a quick blog on the Who, What, Why, When & How of voice commands in canicross, bikejor and dog scootering.

Who? – This one is fairly obvious, you are giving the command to your dog and your dog is the one listening and hopefully understanding and responding accordingly. It is worth mentioning that because these commands are for you and your ‘team’, you can use whatever specific words you want, which leads us on to…

What? – The words you choose for your commands can be anything you like, as long as you’ve trained it and your dog understands, no-one else has to. Many people simply use right, left, go on and other short words, some use noises and more obscure terms to indicate directions to their dogs but pick what you can be consistent with and stick to it.

Good voice commands are essential, particularly when you are on a bike or scooter – Photo courtesy of Take 2 Event Photos

Why? – Again relatively obvious but you might be surprised at how many people feel they don’t really need strong voice commands trained, especially when canicrossing, as you can generally reach out and pull your dog away from any situation. However it’s really important that your dog is listening to you and not just hauling you along enjoying doing their own thing with you as a passenger. It helps tire a dog out faster if they are concentrating on what directions you are giving them and it also builds a much stronger bond of trust if you can call to your dog and they want to do what you’re asking of them. As soon as you involve wheels into the equation, with a bike, scooter or rig, then this becomes crucial and we would never recommend trying any of the wheeled dog sports without having a good degree of control over your dogs’ actions through your voice commands first.

When? – Perhaps the most important of the questions on this list. Our answer to this would be to give voice commands ONLY when you need to. All too often you see people repeating over and over again a verbal direction to their dog, the most frequent of these being ‘go, go, go’ or similar. Your dog will switch off if you are continually issuing the same command, your voice will become like ‘white noise’ in the background of what you are doing and you may lose your dogs’ concentration on you as a result. It is much better to keep quiet while your dog is moving forward and save yourself for when you need to turn or stop or do something other than just run forward in a straight line.

You don’t need to be shouting voice commands at your dog during the whole run, if they’re moving forward in the direction you want then you just need to smile and enjoy! – Photo courtesy of Basil Thornton Photography

How? – Again a really important one because the tone and volume you use for your dog can have a huge affect on how motivated your dog is to work for you. If you are shouting at your dog and not using encouragement, then it follows that your dog may not feel so happy about following your directions. If you watch some of the best dog sports people with their dogs, they are generally always minimalist with voice commands, they never raise their voices unless there is danger (dogs have much better hearing than we do!) and they use a tone of voice which is calm, controlled and encouraging for the dogs.

 

Dog sports are always team work, so make sure you’re not too hard on your ‘team’, using encouragement rather than criticism is always more motivational! – Photo courtesy of Houdscape

Always make your training fun for your dog and remember voice commands can be taught from a very young age out on walks, so take the time to get your dog really responsive to your voice and we’re sure you’ll see the benefits when you’re out and about with them. Happy trails!

Building a bond

This little blog is my story about building a bond with your dog through the dogs sports of canicross, bikejor and dog scootering and why these activities help with the process. When I started running with my first dog I didn’t actually set out with any aim other than to wear her out because she is a collie/husky cross (whoever let that happen didn’t think about the consequences!) Tegan was suffering with separation anxiety having been found as a stray somewhere in Wales and then taken to a pound, she was then transferred to a kennels and after a few months found herself in my home. I imagine for her, being left alone while I went to work caused her a huge amount of stress, as I was the first constant in her life after months of upheaval and change.

Tegan has relied on me for security since she first arrived

Tegan has relied on me for security since she first arrived

With the decision made that running with Tegan in the morning would hopefully tire her out enough to get her to sleep at least some of the time I was out, I set about my new routine. I noticed very quickly that not only did her separation anxiety improve slightly but also her behaviour in general and she began to respond to me in a much better way, treating me with a bit more respect than she had prior to this. When I got Judo as a 4 month old puppy nearly a year after Tegan, the runs were put on hold while he grew up enough to join us and I could tell Tegan missed the fun of being able to go that bit further and faster.

Finally when Judo came of age we took up canicross properly and began training for our first race, it was through this training that I really began to get a ‘feel’ for what my dogs enjoyed. I watched them constantly when running, looking for any signs of being tired, injury or what made them increase in speed. As a result of this, my first race wasn’t a shock, I knew how my dogs were likely to respond to other dogs around them and knew the triggers to look for with Tegan, who can be dog reactive on the lead. Canicross was teaching me to read my dogs better in all situations not just when we were running.

Running my dogs created a stronger bond and improved behaviour - Photo courtesy of Chillpics

Running with my dogs created a stronger bond and improved behaviour – Photo courtesy of Chillpics

By the time my third dog Donnie came into our lives I had already taken up scootering as an alternative way to keep the dogs fit while I recovered from an ankle injury. I felt I didn’t have such a connection with the dogs when scootering as you’re that bit further away and I didn’t feel so involved because I wasn’t doing quite as much work as I had to when canicrossing. With hindsight I can see this wasn’t quite true.

Scootering made me realise how 'switched on' my dogs were with me when we raced - Photo courtesy of Fay Frost Photography

Scootering made me realise how ‘switched on’ my dogs were with me when we raced – Photo courtesy of Fay Frost Photography

What I discovered was that you need to have a bond already in place to be able to communicate effectively with your dog at distance, so in actual fact to be able to scooter or bikejor your dog properly, the bond needs to be stronger than with canicross. This really hit home for me when I began to bikejor with Donnie as we could really pick up speed and turn very quickly on a single voice command. I realised he was anticipating my lines through tricky sections of courses and it was almost like he was reading my mind in some circumstances. That type of connection doesn’t happen if your dog is not switched on to you.

This development was organic, I didn’t seek it out, I didn’t force it, it just happened through time and training. I’m not saying my dogs never do anything unexpected or that we never make any mistakes, but I do find that through taking part in the dog sports, I feel more in tune with all of my dogs and can usually spot a potential problem before it becomes one.

You need to be brave, stupid or have faith in your dogs and their training to attach multiple dogs to a bike! Photo courtesy of David Hawtin

You need to be brave, stupid or have faith in your dogs and their training to attach multiple dogs to a bike! Photo courtesy of David Hawtin

A recent example of this was the diagnosis of Addisons Disease in Donnie. Thankfully I was very aware he wasn’t ‘himself’ even though to anyone else he would have looked like a normal dog and that prompted me to keep asking for tests and keep insisting something wasn’t right. Unfortunately with Addisons because it is so difficult to diagnose it often takes the dog reaching a critical condition before the vets will test for it and in some cases it is missed.

To conclude my blog, which is a glimpse into my own experience of building a bond through dog sports, I’d recommend any dog owner who wants to gain a better understanding of their dog to give canicross or bikejor a go. The shared experience of running or biking as a team will no doubt result in strengthening your bond and I found had many positive effects on my rescue dogs’ behaviour too. If you’d like more information on how to get started please visit my website: http://www.k9trailtime.com and if you have any specific questions e-mail me: emilyt@k9trailtime.com

I certainly feel the bond I've developed with my dogs is directly related to the amount of time I've spent training with them in the dog sports.

I certainly feel the bond I’ve developed with my dogs is directly related to the amount of time I’ve spent training with them in the dog sports.