Why are you writing about Puppy Agility today?
Let’s just get right down to business. I’m writing about the puppy agility topic due to the recent videos going around of very young puppies (3-6 months old) performing agility. These videos were taken at a professional dog training academy. At the time of this writing the video has been shared hundreds of times by those in the agility community. There is a decent level of outrage coming from professional dog trainers. This dog school actually requires professional students to have proficiency in basic agility. This isn’t a rinky-dink fly by night operation… this is a very large dog school. Below I gave a brief explanation of agility, so if you already know what agility is just scroll down.
What is Agility?
Agility is a fun sport, where dogs get to follow an obstacle course with their person. These obstacles include jumps, tunnels, a see-saw, weave poles, and various planks which the dogs must climb. This sport is an addictive challenge for many. Dog and person must work together as a team, with the human guiding the dog to complete the proper sequence of obstacles. To be proficient requires extensive training for both teammates, as well as physical strength. Not without danger, dogs can be injured, and this is reasonably common in the sport these days. To learn more about the sport, you can check out the AKC Explanation Page.
Who can do Agility?
Anyone can get started in the sport of agility. A variety of breeds and people participate. You can train just for fun, or to compete. Typically, for competition, you must wait until the dog is at least a year and a half to compete. This depends on the organization you compete through. The sport is an excellent way to increase confidence, keep physically active, give a dog a job to do, and increase obedience. It is also a lot of fun! The problem is, that many dog training schools are now offering agility classes. This is a wonderful thing, but not if the trainers teaching do not have the experience or expertise to keep the dogs safe! Puppy agility should consist of foundation work first.
What is Puppy Agility?
Puppies can start a puppy agility foundation class as soon as you would like, even at 8 weeks. Puppy agility classes are a great way to get your puppy ready for the sport. However, these foundation classes don’t just throw the puppies into it or onto equipment. Instead, puppies are learning the foundation skills necessary for the sport. These foundation skills take months and months to build. During puppy agility foundation class, you will most likely work on:
- Socialization: Agility dogs must be well socialized. Often, puppy classes incorporate playtime.
- Confidence Building: Your puppy will be exposed to a variety of objects and surfaces, so they are not afraid.
- Tip Planks and Wobble Boards: Many classes will use these pieces of equipment to get the puppy used to movement and banging noises.
- Focus and Self Control: Agility requires a tremendous amount of focus.
- Basic Obedience: You’ll need a stay on the start line, a sit/down on the table, and your dog to walk nicely through a crowd of other dogs and people.
- Jump Grids: Low grids, several inches off the ground, help puppies develop good jumping form.
- Canine Conditioning: Developing body awareness and coordination, plus strength goes a long way in increasing athletic performance and guarding against serious injury.
- Shadow Handling: Your puppy can learn how to follow your instruction early on, without any equipment.
As you can see, there is plenty to learn before your puppy begins working on equipment.
The professional dog trainer academy in question posted a video of a young puppy doing agility. The puppy is clearly physically uncoordinated, and completed a full height a-frame and teeter, in addition to jumps, weave-poles, and more. There are hundreds of shares from serious agility students, as well as comments expressing displeasure. Renowned Agility teacher and competitor Susan Garrett, responding on the video stating:
As a multi time world champion of dog agility I assure you this is NOT appropriate. Puppies of this age should never be weaving, climbing obstacles. It isn’t about jumping its about everything else being shown in this video. Please, for the love of dogs, stop allowing puppies of this age to do this!
You know that you’re doing something wrong when Susan Garrett takes time out of her busy day to comment on it!
Here is the video that caused the initial controversy:
And, there are others:
So what’s the problem?
There are so many of them! I’ll list the major ones:
- Physically Damaging to Puppies: Puppies have open growth plates and aren’t physically developed. Repetitive jumping, weaving, or a fall from a high a-frame can cause career-ending and life-changing PERMANENT damage. Experienced trainers spend the first year working on our foundation, so we have a puppy who is ready at a year to a year and a half to begin really learning equipment.
- Choke Chains and Prong Collars: Dogs typically run agility naked, or in a tightly fitted buckle collar with no tags. Your dog could get caught on something, and either hang themselves or cause whiplash. In addition, punishment during agility training is not very effective. Trainers who use pain or fear as a motivator end up with a dog who runs carefully and without full confidence, because they are afraid of a punishment. You can see this already in these hesitant puppies. In addition, you don’t want to be yanking an agility dog around by the neck, as the spine is so important for a sport dog to preserve.
- Weave Poles and Puppies: Weave poles are very strenuous. They require coordination, flexibility, and strength. Due to the weaving motion, the spine and front assembly are especially taxed. It is common knowledge in the sport that you don’t start weaves until around 12-16 months. If you start doing it sooner, your peers will chastise you. We all know that it is harmful, and a good way to cause Medial Shoulder Instability down the line.
- It’s Ineffective: There are so many other things to work on, that it makes very little sense to push puppies to complete equipment so early in. If you want a dog who will excel at agility, a strong foundation is essential. Skipping the foundation and going right to equipment will lead to a dog who has slow and poor obstacle performance down the line.
- It’s Misleading: The general public sees videos like this, from a professional training school, and thinks that doing this with a puppy is safe. It is unethical for a professional organization to misrepresent best practice in the sport in this way.
- Teaching Trainers Bad Habits: The people who are attending dog training academy in question are paying to learn how to teach dogs and people. What they are learning can cause injury to a clients puppy. I don’t fault the students, and I feel badly for them. They think they are learning something that will help their clients build a relationship and have fun.
Keeping Agility Safe
We need to consider that the dog is a living animal, who deserves to live a long life free of chronic pain and disability. It just isn’t ethical to push young puppies to do agility equipment at a young age. It is up to us to look our for our puppies best interests, not to just look out for our own egos. A puppy who is started on agility equipment too early can easily be injured. This not only will end your career, but will decrease your dog’s overall quality of life, and reduce your disposable income significantly if your dog needs an expensive surgery or treatments. I’m a behavior trainer primarily, but agility is my sport of choice. I love doing agility, but safely.
When a trainer posts a video of themselves doing agility with a young puppy, it doesn’t cause skilled competitors to be amazed… it causes them to be disgusted.