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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Practice positive training – Why? Because it works!

Following on from a week spent with some TTouch practitioners, I thought I’d write a short blog on my opinion of the best training techniques to use for training your dog to canicross, bikejor or scoooter. I’ve been involved in the dog sports for a number of years now and it never fails to amaze me how people forget that if you want your dog to do something for you, you need to make it more fun, more rewarding and more exciting than anything else it might want to do.

For example, if you want your dog to run in front of you rather than to the side, stopping, sniffing  and weeing on every patch of available grass, you need to make running more stimulating than the gratification dogs get from checking out and marking their environment. The easiest way to do this in most cases is to give them something to chase. Dogs love to chase things and it provides stimulation for both body (by the physical action of chasing) and mind (the focus on the subject being chased). Of course not all dogs will prioritise this over other more sedate rewards but in many cases it is a great way to encourage your dog to pull out front. You might choose to use another person or another dog, whichever spurs your dog on the most, however you want to be praising your dog when it does run out front, so that you are not reliant on this technique for very long.

Having someone running or biking in front of you can help encourage a dog to run in a positive way - Photo courtesy of Fay Frost Photography

Having someone running or biking in front of you can help encourage a dog to run in a positive way – Photo courtesy of Fay Frost Photography

Another example of how to motivate your dog is to take them somewhere new, where the sights and smells are totally different to your usual circuit. If you are constantly training over the same tracks then your dog will begin to find the route ‘boring’ and the distractions of smells will probably feature higher in your dogs’ preferences than exploring the area. How many of us go into ‘auto pilot’ when we are driving a regular trip in the car, getting distracted by things in the car rather than what’s going on outside and keeping focused on where we are going? By providing your dog with a variety of routes, you can utilise their natural instinct to rush about the unfamiliar territory and again by rewarding the behaviour, your dog will quickly learn that the action of running about gets positively reinforced and therefore will be quicker to display it next time out.

All this might sound obvious but the amount of times I have passed or been passed by teams when racing whose ‘drivers’ have been hollering at their dog/s to ‘encourage’ them. Unless you use this as a form of reward in your normal routines, I can’t see how continually shouting at your dog will ever consistently get you good results?! Your dog might respond to it but won’t be running faster because they want to please you, they will be running because they don’t want to be shouted at! Think of why personal training can work for you, usually not because you want to please your trainer by doing better, but to avoid being made to feel bad. Which approach do you want for your dog/s?

Quiet encouragement and not yelling at your dog is often more rewarding from your dogs' point of view - Photo courtesy of Fay Frost Photography

Quiet encouragement and not yelling at your dog is often more rewarding from your dogs’ point of view – Photo courtesy of Fay Frost Photography

Most of the best canicrossers, bikejorers and dog scooterers I know will remain virtually silent unless conveying a command of some description. Of course there are times when vocal encouragement will work but this is usually in an upbeat tone designed to excite the dog, not an (often frustrated) ‘get on’ or similar vocalisation in an attempt to stop your dog losing focus when running.

Of course I am a fine one to talk about voice commands, as I find myself ‘chatting’ to my team throughout our races, but I tend to use the same tone I would use if I was just about to produce a tasty treat and only raise my voice if I deem it absolutely neccessary to get one of my dogs’ attention urgently, or to encourage an extra burst of speed at the end of a race. I’d like to think my dogs all love what we do, the very fact that they climb over each other and me to get their harnesses on, gives me a clear indication that they are keen to participate. If I felt I was putting more effort into getting them to run than in keeping up, I’d probably have a re-think about what I was doing with my training.

To conclude, whenever I’m asked about training for canicross, bikejor or scootering, my reply is usually to say keep it fun, focused (which often means short) and to reward your dog for doing what you want it to do. Positive training has proven to be the most effective because your dog will want to continue the behaviour rather than avoid a punishment.

We recently became a member of the Pet Professional Guild which advocates positive training

We recently became a member of the Pet Professional Guild which advocates positive training

For more information about running, biking or scootering with your dog please visit the website: http://www.k9trailtime.com