When you choose to pursue a dog sport like agility, flyball, or obedience, the benefits will be copious. You and your puppy will establish healthy exercise habits. You will be physically and mentally challenged. You both will have a lot of fun. And you will create a bond that will last a lifetime.
Isn’t that the reason you got a puppy in the first place?
No matter which performance sport you choose, trainers all agree on several basic requirements.
The most important thing is the health of your puppy. No puppy should start formal training among other animals or humans until he has all of his immunizations. An overall physical of your pup should be completed by your veterinarian before beginning any type of training.
Mental acuity is just as important as physical health to your puppy’s well-being. Begin the bonding process with your pup right away. Like children, puppies respond to anything that is fun, so make playtime a big part of your puppy’s day. Encourage interaction and interest in toys, as toy or ball drive is important in many competitive dog sports. Teach your puppy at an early age to respond to his name and to come when called, using food or a favorite toy as a reward. Praise heartily and often, in a happy voice that shows how much you approve of your puppy’s response.
Socialization with other dogs is key to any performance sport. Your pup should learn how to interact with other dogs and how to not be distracted (and how to respond to your voice and your command when other dogs are around). There also should be no aggressive tendencies toward other dogs or people on the part of your pup. Aggression is cause for disqualification.
Get your puppy used to a gentle lead at a young age, as leads are often necessary in the beginning stages of training for a performance activity. Puppy kindergarten and beginner obedience classes are helpful for socialization and learning commands you will use in performance sports.
With these basics in place, you can choose your preferred specialty and start having fun.
Flyball Training for Puppies
Fyball is an exciting dog sport that is growing by leaps and bounds.
To hear Pam Martin, of Top Dog Racers’ flyball racing team in Dallas, Texas, tell it, flyball is a ball!
Flyball is a team relay sport. A race course consists of two lanes side-by-side, and two teams of dogs race against each other. Each race is a timed relay of four dogs. The first dog runs the course, jumping over four hurdles. At the end of the jumps, he pushes a spring-loaded paddle with his paw, which causes a ball to shoot out. The dog catches the ball, turns, then races back over the jumps with the ball in his mouth. When he passes the next dog in line, that dog runs the course. When all four dogs on a team have completed the course without any errors, the race is over.
To prepare your puppy for flyball training, play with him, socialize him and take general obedience classes. Determine whether your puppy prefers to turn to the right or the left, so you know what to expect when he is running the course. Knowing how to get a consistent response from your puppy is key in flyball training. While a strong ball drive is a good indicator of your puppy’s natural talent, it is also important to find motivators he likes, be it food or another toy. Ultimately, there has to be something at the end of his run that he likes even better than the ball. Taking the jumps and retrieving the ball is the trick; his motivator is the end reward.
Dedicated flyball training can begin at 6 months of age, starting with lower jumps until the puppy has matured enough to take full jumps and to run at high speeds. It takes, on average, about three months to fully train a puppy for flyball, although he can’t compete until he is 1 year old.
Flyball is boisterous, energetic fun. Dogs who compete can be heard “cheering each other on,” as Martin describes it, barking vociferously throughout the race.
Herding Training for Puppies
If your puppy likes to chase squirrels, chipmunks and birds in your yard, you might consider the sport of herding.
In its purest sense, according to Carolyn Wilki of Raspberry Ridge Sheep Farm in Bangor, Pa., sport herding’s purpose is to ensure that dogs maintain the instincts and personality they are bred to have.
Like flyball and agility, mixed-breed dogs are welcome to compete in herding events outside of those run by the American Kennel Club. Wilki encourages people to bring in their puppies at 6 months of age or older, just to see if they have an interest in livestock.
In evaluations, Wilki looks to see how the pup behaves in certain situations. Is the dog interested after the initial exposure to the livestock? Can he get chase behaviors going? Does the dog bark, wear, eye, patrol? Does he want to split the flock or keep it together? Does the puppy listen to his handler, despite the distraction of the sheep?
Training your dog for herding trials is a long-term commitment. Herding dogs need to learn work zones, cooperation with their handlers, and how to move livestock by adjusting pace, behavior, position and posture, so that the livestock are not rushed. It is important for your puppy to have recall to a stop or a stand-stay or down-stay, so obedience classes are helpful in preparing your pup for herding classes.
Because humans have no herding instinct, it actually takes much longer to train us than it does the dog. There is no canine sport more difficult to master as a handler. According to Wilki, it generally takes a dog two years to be trial-ready, but it takes the handler 10 years to become proficient.
Your puppy will love the physical and mental challenge that herding will provide.
Overall, however, herding success is going to be determined by the relationship you have built with your dog from puppyhood. Working on herding exercises at home, and using a ball or toy as the “livestock,” can help your puppy grow into a dog who behaves more appropriately at home and in social situations.