What and how much physical activity should you do with your puppy? This is a common source of discussion and disagreement in the dog training world. I don’t know a definite answer, but I do have thoughts and opinions. As I’m preparing for a puppy agility seminar tomorrow, I thought I’d write down some of my experiences with puppy training. In general, I think that I wait longer with some things than others, but I’m definitely not afraid to let my puppies use their bodies a lot. I don’t think that there is much evidence to back up any standpoint on this issue. If you know of relevant studies or other evidence – please let me know. One study that I do know about is a Norwegian study looking at the incidence of hip dysplasia in four large breeds. This study indicates that puppies under three months benefit from outdoor exercise on soft ground in moderately rough terrain. The study also indicates that young puppies might develop more hip dysplasia if allowed to walk on stairs. Since one is always more inclined to believe evidence that supports your previous beliefs, I’m not sure if the stair thing is real or if stair walking is something that simply correlates with living in a city and not being allowed exercise in moderately rough terrain… Anyway – these are the things that I consider when raising a puppy:
Surface. From the moment puppies are born, I think it’s important that they are raised on a good surface. I think it’s really sad to see puppies raised on slippery floors, and I really do think it affects their development. A good surface provides good traction so that the puppy can move about, play and run without slipping. It’s really difficult to find a perfect indoors surface for young puppies – especially if you also want to be able to keep it clean. We try our best with indoors footing for the puppies that we breed, but I still think it’s best if they run and play outdoors on grass as much as possible when growing up. Spring and summer puppies have an obvious advantage here, being able to spend more time outdoors. Fortunately, I’ve rarely had trouble with border collie litters in the winter. They’re definitely okay with playing outdoors in the snow as long as they have a warm place to sleep in when they get tired.If you have slippery floors in your house, I’d definitely suggest that you put some good carpets in before you get a puppy. Place carpets where the puppy moves the most and especially where he’s likely to be in a hurry. And most importantly – make sure that you have a good surface for training. Having reviewed a lot of training videos in our online classes, it’s unfortunately very common for people to train on slippery floors. Please, make sure that you’re always on good footing when playing or training with your dog. I don’t think it’s fair to play or train anything that requires fast movements if the floor is slippery and the dog has to struggle to keep his balance.
Free exercise in moderately rough terrain. The best way for a puppy to find strength, balance, and proprioception is by free movement in terrain. When puppies are really small, they have a lot of fun just exploring our garden. I let the puppies we breed spend as much time outdoors as possible from 3-4 weeks of age. With an older puppy, I take them to the forest for exploring and moving about. At 2-4 months of age I usually just stay in roughly the same area and let the puppy just explore, do some recalls and slow walking by my side for short periods of time. When they’re older I let them join the grown-up dogs for walks, but keep an eye on them to make sure they don’t get too tired. I also want to avoid too much running with older dogs, herding other dogs and especially getting tackled by larger dogs. Fortunately, my older dogs are good at keeping a relaxed attitude on our forest walks, so the puppy quickly learns that drill. Here’s a really nice video showing some exercises and play done with a puppy in our woods. I think Wilco was about 4 months old when we made this.
Learning balanced positions. Puppies often lack the muscle that allows for a proper sit, stand or down. They often sit and lie down on one hip because it’s tiring to sit or lie straight for more than a few seconds at a time. In a stand, the puppy will often move feet often and might stick them out to the side as “training wheels” to keep their balance. In addition to slow walking in moderately rough terrain, I think working positions with the puppy is the most efficient way to give them the core strength needed for future exercise. I help the puppy into a good stand, sit or down and just feed them there for a few seconds before releasing. I gradually add duration to the position as well as shaping for the puppy to find the correct position on his own. I don’t see any point in putting the puppy on unstable surfaces like balance discs before he can show me a nice, balanced, and strong position on even ground. When the puppy has developed muscles and technique to hold positions nicely, I’ll introduce some light pressure from my hands pushing to the side at his hips or shoulders so that he needs to push back a little bit to keep the position. I’ll also introduce shifting from one position to another, for example sit to stand so sit with his front feet still.
Shaping some tricks for body awareness. I also like to teach the puppy some tricks for body awareness. I don’t think this is as important as the three points mentioned above, but it definitely helps the puppy be more aware of his body and how he can use it to get rewarded when we start some more agility related exercises like contacts and jumping. It also gets him using muscles that might not be used much when he’s moving freely. I prioritize quality over quantity here. I’d rather have four really nice steps backing up with good hind leg movements and a straight back than have a puppy throw himself backward for many meters. Things that I teach include:
Lifting hind legs to a target (backing up onto something).
Rear end awareness with front feet on a platform and hind feet circling around the front.
Walking around an object with a bent spine and deliberate paw placements. Not fast, slow and controlled.
Stretching out hind legs from a down.
Lifting front feet from a sit and a stand.
Crawling with hind feet under the body alternating left and right feet going forward.
Stepping into and out of a box or over cavalettis. Slow and deliberate once again.
I am not afraid to let my puppies use their bodies, join on walks and build muscle. I think it’s probably worse to do too little with a puppy that is going to be an active adult than to do too much. I just try to do more of what I think builds the right muscle and strength for the future, and I don’t like to see any dog work in bad form or do things that they’re not strong enough to handle.
In training my dogs for sports like agility or obedience, there is one thing that is my priority above and beyond everything else: My dog should always ask to work and always want the training more than I do. Let’s call it “engagement”. If I don’t have that, I’ll always have to make huge compromises in training, and it will probably not hold up for competition anyway. I will therefore always work on this first and put other things on hold.
There are two components to teaching engagement. First, you need to develop great rewards. If you don’t have a reward that your dog is really excited about, he’ll probably not get excited about training either. But remember: A reward is not a thing, a reward is an event that creates feelings of joy and excitement for your dog. If your dog is not excited about food or play in itself, you need to figure out what brings your dog joy and associate rewards with those feelings.
Second, your dog needs to learn that he is responsible for making rewards happen. He needs to do in order to get. There are a lot of dogs that aren’t engaged even though they actually really enjoy the rewards. We can easily create a disengaged dog by poor timing and bad training choices. So many dogs have learned that the best way to get engagement out of their humans is to disengage, run away or show signs of frustration. Timing is everything! There is truth in the saying that you need to be “more fun” in order to get your dog to engage, but it is crucial that the trainer brings the fun when the dog is bringing engagement, not the other way around.
I’ve probably written about this many times in the past, as it is such a key element in my training and teaching. The reason I wanted to bring it up again is that it’s what I’m working on with Spy. She is now 15 months old and she’s been with me almost half a year. Creating a driven agility dog out of an adolescent dog brought up in a shed on Ireland has been a longer process than I imagined. I still think we’ll get there, and I’m learning so much in the process, but I have to be very patient. To me, patience means that I think much more about creating that perfect training flow than I think about specific skills. She does know a few skills – she can sit, do a jumping stand, circle a cone, get in a bed, do a nose touch – if she is motivated and nothing distracts her.
Spy really likes to play with me, which is great! It took months for her to be confident enough to play, but now she’s just getting more and more excited about it. Treats are not important to her at all, she’ll only work for them if absolutely nothing distracts her (and it helps if she’s hungry). I try to use a lot of praise, social interaction and play to increase the value of food rewards, and we’re making progress, but it will get much easier once she understands to be really engaged in our play sessions.
Although she really likes to play, she isn’t really engaged. She is very easily distracted and will often disengage within seconds after I take the toy away. It’s much easier if I keep moving, and harder if I stand still. I try to mix it up in our sessions: Sometimes I’ll move away from her after taking the toy away and she has to do a little more to get the toy back. Sometimes I’ll stand still and wait for any kind of engagement – a glance at my face for example – before I initiate play again. Timing is of course really important: Me moving away makes it easier and more fun for her, so I do that while she is still engaged, not when she’s sniffing the grass or staring into space.
I videotaped a session today (I actually video most of my sessions, it helps me with structure and evaluation) for you to see. I should probably have kept the session a bit shorter. She starts to disengage at about 1:20 into the session, and she takes off from me at 3 minutes. I’m not sure if it’s best to keep her sessions really short so that she never disengages, or if it’s actually a good thing for her to check out and then come back to work. I lean towards now stressing about the checking out, because she got better after a few repetitions where I had to wait a little. I definitely should have ended before she took off, because 3 minutes is more than enough for any dog. Notice that I am calling her back once she’s left, but only as she has turned around and is headed back to me. I reinforce that decision with a game of chase and play, and also build value for her name/recall in a situation where I know she’ll be successful.
Questions? Leave a comment and I’ll answer as soon as possible!
If you want to learn more on developing rewards, building engagement and teaching skills, you should check out our Foundation Class starting on August 14
The three girls got their very first training session today. I’m not sure if you can call it training, but I played with them for a few minutes each. Of course, they have been playing with me a bit before, but nothing planned. All three seemed to enjoy playing. Holly is the most intense and most interested in toys. Ivy is more socially interested and really wants to cuddle. Fern is somewhere in between. I’m very excited to try a shaping session with each of them too, to see how they might be different there. The only “training” I’ve done is to let them eat some treats from my hands (puppies don’t really understand that concept until you show them).
They are 10 weeks now and obviously I haven’t done much training with them. I usually think talking about “puppies being puppies” is strange (what else would they be?), but that’s really what they have been until now. Just three puppies exploring the environment, playing with each other, interacting with the older dogs and sleeping in a pile.
These are Bud’s three little sisters that are staying with us – at least for a while. They are 8 weeks old now and their two sisters Moss and Bracken are moving to their new homes. All three are just lovely and I’m excited to see how they will turn out. One of them (I don’t know who) will probably move to a new, great home in a month or so. Our reason for keeping three puppies is to be able to evaluate them more and decide which one – if any – will be suited for breeding and maybe sheepdog trials with us (or with someone else on breeding terms). If we decide that one of them are not what we’re looking for, we make sure that they end up in the best home possible with someone that is perfect for them. One big advantage in breeding sheepdogs and teaching/competing in other dog sports is that we know lots of great people that provide excellent homes. I really prefer to sell other puppies/dogs if I have the choice, as it is easier to make a perfect match when you know more about the dog.
I’m getting ready for a weekend of agility trialing tonight. I will miss the puppies. When I get back, I might try their first training sessions. It’s always very interesting to observe them in new situations.
Holly – loves to tug and play. Very happy and focused.
Fern – loves Thomas and would prefer to stay close to him all the time.
Ivy – went for an evening walk with me and my dogs tonight. The other puppies decided to stay by the house.
It’s November already, and unfortunately winter came early this year. It’s snowing, so my agility equipment is covered in snow and sheep have had to move indoors for the winter. Winters in Sweden can be really depressing, but I’m a bit more optimistic this year as we’ve got a new indoor agility facility just 15 minutes from home. I do some training on my own there, teach class once a week and train with friends every two weeks. Here are some clips of Bud from training with friends yesterday. Things are starting to come together. He’s responsive to my handling, jumps nicely, weaves with confidence, and did his first A-frame in a sequence yesterday! It looks like he’s figured out how to run it without flying too far over the apex (another “let the dog tell you when he’s ready” situation). We still have a lot of things to work on (like that weave situation that he didn’t understand, and always jumping the tire/wall jump/spread, and consistently doing perfect seesaws, and…), but we’re having so much fun getting ready for his first competition in December.
Bud’s five little sisters were born 8 weeks ago. They are absolutely adorable and so much fun. Two of them will move to new homes this week, and three will stay with us – at least for a while until we know more about them. I’m very excited to see how they will turn out. Raising puppies is a lot of fun, and a lot of work. I believe the most important things in raising good puppies is good genes. No amount of socialisation or stimulation will make up for breeding from nervous dogs. And puppies with good genes generally turn out really good even if they are raised with just basic socialisation. I’m not afraid to buy puppies from working farms in the UK. If it’s a good dog, it will turn out just as good as any dog from a breeder here.
What I think is important, and what I make my priority with my puppies, is that they get a lot of time outdoors where they can move, play and explore without restrictions. Where they are not slipping on slick floors and where they develop balance, proprioception and confidence. My puppies spend most of their days from 4-8 weeks playing and exploring (and sleeping!) in our garden (yes, even in the snow). I also make sure to let them meet as many different people as possible, including children. They get to hang out with their mother a lot and also with the other friendly or neutral dogs in the house. They get fed mostly raw, but also tries different kinds of kibble and other types of food. I’m convinced that Early Neurological Stimulation and things similar is pseudoscience, and while it probably doesn’t hurt it’s weird how many people will value that kind of thing over other many much more reasonable criteria for picking a breeder.
Time to introduce Fidget – Thomas’ new cocker puppy. She’s 12 weeks old and has lived here for a couple of weeks, although it feels like much longer. Fidget is a working cocker spaniel and will be a field trial dog just like Kat, who turned four in March. Kat and Fidget are not related, but I think they have a lot in common as puppies. Fidget is mostly calm and quiet in the house, sometimes playing with the young border collies like Nicks or Bud. She likes to come along when we move around the house, but will stay in a room and sleep if she’s not allowed to follow. She is really good at going to sleep when she needs to, and we don’t need to confine her in any way. Just give her something soft to sleep on and she’ll go to sleep when she’s tired. She’s very happy that she can get on the sofa on her own now. Border collies sleep anywhere, cockers wants it ore comfortable!
Thomas has started some training with her. She loves to play and enjoys food, so motivation is not a problem. The biggest challenge with a cocker puppy is that they are so quick and do so many different things, often all at once. Teaching her a sit with her paws still was a challenge, but she is getting the idea now, and will sit still and release on a word. She’s also worked on recalls, picking up a toy, following Thomas with attention and self control. We’ve had a very busy time with two litters of border collie puppies (on litter is 7 weeks old and the other was born last week) and a lot of work. Thomas has been travelling and Fidget has been hanging out with me a lot. So most of the time, she’s just part of our big pack of dogs and acts like it. She just needs to go out to pee more often than the grown ups…
This fall has been very exciting. I brought my German wirehaired puppy, Alot, grouse hunting in the Swedish and Norwegian mountains for the first time.
I started training the foundations like sit stay, stop signal, recalls and delivery to hand already when she was a baby. All training is based on fun games that develop a great relationship.
I prefer to keep a balance between the level of obedience and the hunting drive that usually kicks in at six months and keeps developing until she turns two or three years.
She was only six months old the first time I took her to the mountains. She found the birds, but didn’t point yet. I shot a few birds that she was allowed to retrieve just to give her the experience. She picked them up and returned straight to me to deliver to hand.
One new thing I taught Alot which I haven’t done with my other GWPs and setter, is to teach her steadiness to the gunshot. The procedure is exactly the same as for adding any other cue.
1) Check that the dog offers the behavior fluently without any cue.
2) Add the cue right before the dog offers it.
3) Change small things all the time to avoid any patterns. Make the cue salient. Generalize it.
4) Test the cue with gradually more distractions and increase the distance.
The first sessions I used a loud hand clap instead of a gunshot to make sure not to scare the little pup. This video shows the first steps.
I could progress really fast because I already had built a lot of value for the sit behavior and because such the gunshot is a salient signal that is different from all other cues.
In September I took her to the mountains again, and let her hunt with an experienced dog. Now she was seven months old. Before leaving I introduced her to partridges. She could point, flush and be steady to the verbal cue (see short video below). But she didn’t had the experience to handle grouse in the mountains and didn’t point yet. But she was perfectly steady to the gunshot every single time.
I recommend to get the foundations done and then take the young dog hunting to gain experience. Then nothing really goes wrong because I know that I can control the dog if she tries to run in.
In October she was eight months old and we spent a week in the mountains. Now she covered more and more ground, on average 100 meters to each side and sometimes up to 150 meters. She even handled the grouse perfectly and we both had such a great time.
There are some great contrasts in the hunting sequence. The dog should hold her point and only flush the birds on cue. She should be steady to the wing and shot and wait for the cue to retrieve. When hunting with a youngster, I don’t ask for all at once. I know she will flush willingly if I ask her (like in the partridge video), so I don’t ask her to flush. I just walk up to her, flush the birds myself. This way the situations become nice and calm and I get the opportunity to praise her for making good choices. I even fetch most of the birds myself and let her hold or sniff them as I return to her to reinforce the sit stay. But she did a great retrieve on a runner. Super experience!
Kat, my 3 year old working cocker has been hunting too. She did great in two field trials and placed third and forth. In both trials she got a first prize with “CK” (certificate quality), which means that she is more than half way to the title Swedish field trial champion.
January 4th I do another round of our popular online class “Relationship building”. This class is based on my experience training gundogs, but is open for all breeds. You can join with a puppy, a young or adult dog of any breed. A great relationship is the foundation that makes both everyday life and (training for) trials fun and easy.
Bud learned the jumping stand early. I like to teach it to small puppies because they are bouncy and you can often easily capture it by just standing and waiting for it to happen when the puppy has energy and is playful. I don’t care a lot about perfection at this point, I just click and reward any bounce where both front legs leave the ground until the puppy offers the behavior in order to get a reward. I also like to name the behavior early, because I think it’s good to work on stimulus control with my puppy, and they often learn to love this behavior quickly.
I have not planned for Bud to be an obedience dog, but I love to work on obedience behaviors and think they are great for anything I want to do in the future. I’ve used his jumping stand for cue discrimination, and I have added some staying in position after the jump too. But I haven’t really worked on it, and I realized recently that he always moved his back feet counter clockwise on landing. It wasn’t pretty, and he did it every time. And I had rewarded it every time. Now, I decided that I wanted him to stay straight infront of me when doing the behavior, maybe even be able to keep his back feet still and just bounce with his front feet.
If the dog is always performing the behavior in a way we don’t like, it’s not a good idea to just not reward it and wait for perfection. The dog will probably give up in the process. You could chose to reward the better responses, and not reward the ones where he moves his feet the most – but you’re still rewarding something you don’t really like. Another solution is to think about some other behaviors to train that might help with understanding and hopefully bleed over to the behavior in question. That’s what I started by doing. I worked on backing up straight, offering a stand (not a jump, just four feet on the floor) straight infront of me and some rear end awareness and finishes on my right side (moving back feet clockwise).
This helped enough for me to get much better behavior once I started the jumping stand again. There were a lot of offered jumping stands that I didn’t reward, but he did seem to remember the exercises we’d just done when I didn’t reward, and I could jackpot some jumping stands that were much straighter than before. I still rewarded back foot movement (which I don’t really see as a problem) as long as it wasn’t to his right. If I found that he reverted back to his old style, and rate of reinforcement got too low, I would remind him of one of the behaviors used before (often just standing in front of me, or some clockwise pivoting) and then go back to the jumping stand. But most important was criteria – not rewarding what I don’t want, and rewarding all the good attempts.
I made a little video of our training today. He was doing well and had some nice repetitions where he kept back feet still, and even could go from sit to stand with his back feet planted. When I found myself just rewarding many repetitions in a row, I decided to change something – challenge him. The behavior is nice, but it’s not ever finished. Just changing something small can make it a bit harder for the dog and increase his understanding of what we want. I chose to add an open hand with treats to the left. It made it harder, but he worked through it nicely and came out more confident in what I want. I usually don’t want to use a cue for the behavior when I add a challenge like this, so it would have been smarter if I’d let him offer it freely instead. Noted for the next challenge!
Home again after another weekend at an agility trial. Squid won jumpers on Sunday. Epic had a really good jumpers run on Saturday, with one bar. Agility courses were not my favourite design, and the ground was muddy. Both dogs ran well on Sunday, but picked up (the same) extra jump after a tunnel. I got the chance to reward Squid for a good dogwalk performance, so I was just as happy. I really like the relaxed attitude in Sweden that allows you to reward your dog with a toy in the ring anytime you want. You can plan it, or just choose to do it when you know you’re not going to place. I keep a small toy in my pocket for those instances. I think it’s great for training, good for the dogs (instead of a disappointed handler, you can turn it to something positive), and good for Swedish agility internationally (difference between training and competing becomes less obvious for our dogs).
Wilco had two runs per day and I really felt that I figured out more on how he needs to be prepared and taken care of in that environment. He was a bit worried about other dogs (he is very friendly and seems to take it personally if other dogs are upset in any way) before our first run, and I didn’t feel connected to him. For our other runs, I made sure that he didn’t have to be as close to other dogs. I also had more exciting play with him before and after our runs. I think he ran faster than he has before. We had some really nice parts, but he didn’t have time to weave on the first try in any run… I trained weaves at home today and he was brilliant. It’ll soon come together in trials too!
We had long days at the competition, as they ran all classes and started with class 3 (Squid and Epic) and then ended with class 1 (Wilco) with class 2 in between. Bud got to come out and play/train and just hang out around the ring. He is very good at staying calm around the ring, and also very good at focusing on training with a lot of distractions. He just doesn’t seem to view it as distractions at all. I made a video of some of the training – it’s far from perfect, but some of the things we’re working on, like:
Self control around toys
Listening to cues
Basic handling without obstacles
I hope you enjoy it even though it’s a bit too long and things are far from perfect. If you want more clips from our training (and a nice blooper from this session, where he bites my leg, blind crosses as I scream out in pain and then steals the toy), you should check us out on Instagram (@fannyftw). Today, I posted a video from his first ever jumping session.