What is good, what is bad?
There is so much debate/discussion on puppy training in agility. What is good, what is bad and what is a good foundation for the puppies future in agility. Nobody really knows but everyone has an opinion on it and we can only do what we genuinely feel is best for the dog in the long-term. Puppies have growth plates (real name epiphyseal plate) as do humans that need to fully develop without being damaged. Most people believe that we have to do less impact exercise with pups to allow bones to develop and not get damaged therefore limiting impact exercise until the pup is about 14 months old depending on the breed type. Obviously there are ligaments, tendons and all other bits and pieces that can also get damaged through constant twisting, turning and impact. I have witnessed puppies doing full height contact equipment at 8 months old, also weaving and doing almost full height jumps at 9 months old. I have seen that done by so called top handlers and also bottom handlers (handlers in the lower grades). We see lots of dogs having to retire at 7 years old through wear and tear or an injury, are these brought on by the early training foundation? Who knows?
I do think there is a middle ground, I disagree with many people that say let the pup be a pup until it’s 14 months old and then they try to cram in teaching all the essentials for agility in the next four or five months of training before competition, they try to teach all components of agility in a short period. I think this is very wrong. A dog that has had no impact exercise or very little of any kind then has to suddenly jump, twist and do so much whilst learning co-ordination and concept at full speed. Its far too much to ask and we shouldn’t. We should prepare their bodies for progressive training. Obviously you have the other extreme where people teach their pup to weave at 7 weeks old, just go watch it on YouTube and cringe. I have seen litters of pups be distributed to 5 or 6 agility handlers and at 10 months old it is amazing to see how different their foundation training has been. Some have never been on a contact, some have never seen weaves, some have brilliant weave entries from all angles and are bombing over the full height dog walk and smashing into the ground with glee. Why do we all have such a difference of what is right and what’s wrong?
I will quote a few things that may throw a few of our common beliefs on their head. Humans have growth plates that are not fully developed until we are well into our twenties yet we do not stop an 18 year old from doing impact exercises but we would stop a 10 year old, why? I have an argument for impact exercise it’s based on Wolff’s law. I will now quote it from Wikipedia (my favourite website).
Wolff’s law is a theory developed by the German Anatomist/Surgeon Julius Wolff (1836-1902) in the 19th century that states that bone in a healthy person or animal will adapt to the loads it is placed under. If loading on a particular bone increases, the bone will remodel itself over time to become stronger to resist that sort of loading. The external cortical portion of the bone becomes thicker as a result. The converse is true as well: if the loading on a bone decreases, the bone will become weaker due to turnover, it is less metabolically costly to maintain and there is no stimulus for continued remodeling that is required to maintain bone mass.
Davis’ Law is used in anatomy to describe how soft tissue models along imposed demands. It is the corollary to Wolff’s law. It is used in part to describe muscle-length relationships and to predict rehabilitation and postural distortion treatments as far as muscle length is concerned.
So is it possible that by letting our pup be a pup until it is of an age we believe it can now suddenly do jumping exercises are we in actual fact damaging that pup as we have prevented it from strengthening its bones and muscles ready for the impact exercise, so we now have a 14 month old pup with weak bones and muscles and we expect it to be able to tackle everything we throw at it in agility. I don’t know the answer and we do not have enough scientific papers or studies to know for sure either way. What I always attempt to do when I can’t find the answer is resort back to nature. What does the dog do in nature? Yes I know through thousands of years of breeding, our dogs aren’t exactly natural anymore, lets face it, very few of our dogs could ever survive in the wilderness, they just don’t have the bodies for it or even the mental attitude. So lets nip to their closest relative the wolf. So again I will nick a bit from the wolf conservation trust.
What exactly do wolf cubs get up to physically?
8 to 10 weeks
At 8 to 10 weeks the wolf cub’s stamina grows daily and activity is prolonged between rest periods.
Play is important in learning social interaction and hunting. Play fighting is common and rough.
By about 8 to 10 weeks, they start to move around more with the pack and get left at rendezvous sites while the rest of the pack goes hunting.The survival instinct of ‘run first, find out what spooked you later’, is still strong and is a very effective form of defence. Also around this age, cubs are known to start chasing fast moving small animals, and mousing with a
stiff 2 legged jump is often observed.
At 3 months the cubs are classed as juveniles. They are full of energy and are likely to follow adults away from the den / rendezvous site or go off exploring on their own. The survival instinct of “run first, find out what spooked you later”, is still strong and is a very effective form of
defence. Also around this age, cubs are known to start chasing fast moving small animals, and mousing with a stiff 2 legged jump is often observed. Cubs as young as 4 months can accompany adults out on the hunt but it will be a while before they start to take an active role. This is a time for honing skills and building strength. Growth is still rapid and excessive exercise does not appear to be a problem for developing joints as it is for young dogs.
4 – 6 months
At 4 – 6 months of age the cubs regularly go out on the hunt with the adults and by 9 months will already have the skill to take down small prey. Cubs at this age have been known to disperse from the family group but juveniles can stay until up to 3 years and some may remain in the family pack for life. Often, as a group or individually, they may go off for short periods. By 3 years the wolves are fully mature.
ref: UK Wolf Conservation Trust.
Draw your own conclusion
So if wolf cubs, (why are they called cubs and not pups?) can do all this running, jumping, hunting and playing and their bones be fine then why can’t our puppies? Perhaps diet plays a part. Well obviously that’s another whole debate. I feed my own dogs a barf diet, (bones and raw food) as I don’t believe their digestive systems can deal with grains, rice and cereals which are used to bulk up kibble and other dog foods, they wouldn’t get this in the wild and no matter how many years we have domesticated the dog they will not evolve to adequately digest that kind of grains, cereals, kibble, etc until their teeth grow flat and square like our own and until then, they are designed to eat bones, flesh and anything they can scavenge but they certainly wont be scavenging in a rice field or corn field or the shredded wheat aisle of the supermarket. Oops sorry went off on a tangent from puppy training.
Personally I will advise and stick with a middle ground for the puppies, which consists of running the pups through wings with the poles at 3 or 4 inches high, (unless it’s a Papillon or some other teeny, tiny dog) (I wont put the poles on the floor as the pup could land with front feet on the pole and roll the pole forward and damage itself by slipping forward on it, like us standing on a marble) I will have contacts flat on floor or a few inches high to build understanding and confidence at a young age and I will train channel weaves from about 13 months old but have it as a channel so no bending at all for quite a few months, but allows you to teach weave entries before the weaves ever close up. But, the whole thing will be mainly about letting the pup know its fun, motivation and teaching co-ordination and confidence.