Puppies: Trust the Process

In response to the awesome Dog Agility Blog Event on the topic of “Starting your puppy”

In thirteen years of agility I’ve been very lucky. My first sheltie, Flame, came fully trained at five years old and was ring ready. Literally the first time I ever ran agility was at a show my aunt took me to & Flame’s owner Diane asked if I wanted to try running her in novice jumpers (uh, yes?!). I clapped my way through a Deb Hunt course and Flame, dealing with my incompetence like a champ, won the damn class. I took the ribbon with me to my first day of seventh grade. So yeah, I was hooked.

Since Flame, I’ve trained two radically different dogs. Nike came home at 10 weeks old when it was apparent that he was too big for the breed ring, but would be a nice 16″ dog. He was a singleton who sat in his pen and stared at me with his blue and brown eyes and melted my fourteen year old heart (not difficult at any age, I supposed). Bolt came to me at just over 8 weeks old (the moment Paulette said he could) and was a fluffy black white and tan ball of fur (with a lightning bolt shape tuff on his neck). Luckily for him, I was a (slightly) more mature 22 year old.

Baby Nike

Both Nike and Bolt were destined for agility when I took them home, but they are at heart polar opposites. Nike started showing signs of fear at a young age. Things that were previously innocuous became things that were fear triggers: waste barrels, parked cars, sudden noises, unfamiliar people and dogs– agility. I put too much of a burden on the back of my fluffy blue merle boy. Nationals, MACHs, tryouts, world team. When he started acting fearful towards agility I started to see those aspirations crumble. I needed to reassess a plan of attack, it was obvious that he wouldn’t be ring ready in eleven months to the day. Instead, we went to different places and faced fears. Things that were scary slowly became background noise to him. It was a long, long process. The most important thing that can exist between us and our dogs is trust, and it starts out at an early age. I learned that Nike didn’t trust that he was safe in agility and that was the problem to our foundation & so I worked hard to build that up with him. Once he got it he ran wild with it. He started to love agility. He was fast, he was happy– he did take me to nationals (twice), we got a MACH and he took me to world team tryouts three times. An absolutely invaluable experience.

Bolt on the other hand was a completely different dog. He came home that first day confident and happy. Playing with his new toys, digging his new surroundings and playing with his new big older brother. When I took him out I kept expecting the same fear triggers to set him off. But they didn’t come- I had to keep reminding myself that he was a different dog. Things came a little easier with him. I didn’t have to work to make him motivated, I had to work to make sure he kept his brain inside his head. Sometimes it feels like cheating with him– but I know it’s because he had the benefit of years of learning that I applied to my approach with him. I hope to bring that to the next dog I bring home. 

So, trust the process.
Know that every dog you have will be different than the last. That you can’t control everything in the world. That they are puppies and as puppies they will make mistakes, and chew things, and chase things, and destroy things, and get distracted by people, dogs, and shiny objects. They might get afraid sometimes, and they might forget they have brains sometimes– but know that it’s just part of the process.
You aren’t breaking your puppy by trying new things you haven’t done before. You aren’t a failure if your puppy isn’t where so-and-so’s dog is/was at the same age. Play with them. Tug with them. Don’t panic if they don’t like to tug. Don’t compare where they are to anyone else. Don’t compare them to how your last dog did or how they learned. Know that their attention spans are short. That they don’t know about MACHs, or Nationals, or world team. The time with them will go by too quickly, especially as puppies.
Don’t over analyze them or what you’re doing, just start.

Bond with your puppy first. Love who they are. The rest will follow.