Tuesday, May 17, 2011


My puppy owners and students have been asking me a lot of questions such as "when should I start weaving?", "when should I start jumping?" and "when should I start... (fill in the blank)?"  I've been giving this a lot of thought especially with so many puppies currently training at ACTS right now as well as my first litter of puppies approaching 12 months of age soon. 

Puppies need to not only be physically ready for training - meaning growth plates have closed and there is an awareness of their body and how to use it ,but  puppies also need to be mentally ready.  This mental readiness is much harder to assess but it is so important to the training program.  We often talk about how males mature more slowly than females mentally or about how this or that puppy seems to be more immature or mature than others its age.  When it is something many of us can see - is there a way to really quantify this so we can have some measure of a puppy's mental readiness?

In my experience with my own puppies and my student's puppies it makes a huge difference if weave training is started when the puppy/young adult is mentally ready compared to starting it when they are still mentally immature.  Weaving is a complex behavior involving a lot of mental and physical coordination.  It doesn't matter which of the many training methods you use, if a dog is not mentally ready for weaving when it is started it can take an excruciatingly long time to train it to fluency and/or it can cause mental stress for the dog.

I first really noticed this phenomenon 4 years ago with Sinco.  Generally I like to move dogs through weave training as quickly as they can handle it which is why it is important to be sure they are mentally ready.  Sinco continued to show me that she was having trouble grasping the concepts.  Tay who was the same age caught on to weaving very quickly and really seemed to enjoy it at an early age.  Feisty also caught on to weaving quickly.  I chose to be patient with Sinco and just try her on the weaves every couple of weeks throughout the summer.  We were having to rework the teeter as well since she had a set-back on the teeter.  One day Sinco went through the weaves with the guides I like to use without hesitation and with speed and I knew that she was getting it.  It had paid off to not push her on it but to let her try it every couple of weeks just one time.  I believe if I had done a lot of repetitions with her she would have thought too hard about it and stressed herself trying too hard to learn it.

Now I wish I could put my finger on what clued me into giving her more time to learn to weave while the other two dogs I had who were about the same age were able to handle learning to weave and progressed at brisk pace. 

I do find that students who start agility training with older dogs have an easier time if and only if their dogs have been taught how to learn and how to make mistakes from a young age.  The older dogs seem to have a mental readiness for learning complex behaviors that is missing in many young dogs.  Now there are young dogs who are very mentally mature for their age (just as we see in people) and these dogs can be amazing at what they learn at young ages and in these cases we have to use the physical limitations to slow down the training process. 

So some things I'm starting to look for in terms of mental readiness for learning complex behaviors and behavior chains (sequencing obstacles for example) include:
  • Ability to focus on learning new things for a few minutes at a time - continuously without getting distracted.
    • This may not seem like much but for those who have done two minute timed shaping sessions will realize that two minutes can be a long time and dogs can lose focus multiple times in that two minutes. 
  • Ability to learn new things in a distracting and/or novel environment.
    • This is another indication of a dog's ability to focus on tasks which requires a degree of mental maturity.
  • Ability to learn new things that involve different parts of their bodies. 
    • For example teaching them to lift both the left fore and left hind legs at the same time, teaching them to stand on cans/pedestals/pods with one foot on one item and the other foot on a different item (ultimately all four feet each standing on a different item).
  • Ability to exercise self-control amidst distractions.
    • This is a sign that they are able think about controlling themselves in the face of fun things like toys which requires a lot of mental energy.  Doing stays with toys moving around them or food tossed on the ground for example.  Dogs who mature early have an easier time with learning the concept of stay at a younger age than dogs who mature more slowly.
Mental readiness for weave training should be the biggest concern for agility trainers who are asking "when will my dog be ready to learn to weave?".  I am familiar with a lot of different ways to train weaves and I know that not all methods work for all dogs and handlers - even the way I have had the most success using.  Weave training can also highlight a trainer/handler's strengths and weaknesses as a trainer.  If a trainer tends to want to "help" their dog solve problems rather than let them figure it out then this will show up in weave training .  The desire to help the dog will inevitably cause weave training to be delayed.  If a trainer is not able to work with their dog on a regular basis with weave training then this will also cause a delay in learning the weaves.  The biggest pitfall I see - no matter what method is used  whether it is 2 x 2, channel, guides or weav-a-matics is that people tend to stay too long at a particular stage in the training which causes delays and problems in the training.  If a dog is mentally and physically ready for weave training then the training should be able to progress at a brisk pace.  Often a dog is started on weave training that is not mentally or physically ready for the training and then training is delayed due to the dog's inability to grasp the complex concept.  This can prove frustrating for everyone involved and this is hard to identify as the underlying cause for the difficulty in training.  If you are unsure whether your dog is mentally ready for weave training then I recommend waiting.

It is also very important to allow dogs to make mistakes as they are learning weaves - if they are trying to go faster then let them be sloppy.  If you put pressure on them to be accurate when trying to speed them up it can backfire by creating stress in the dog and then creating slow weaves.  When training weave entrances in a sequence I always want to repeat the obstacle(s) before the weaves so the dog learns the entry on their own.  I don't want to stop the dog and "fix it" for them or dogs will quickly learn that their handler will always "fix it" for them.  In the first year of doing weaves the dogs will seem to come and go with their fluency for weaves so be prepared for this and have a plan for how to handle it when it happens.  It is very important to be aware that physical soreness/pain can severely impact weave performance. 

Once my dogs are proficient with weaves I rarely practice them.   I feel that weaves are a physically demanding obstacle much like the aframe and therefore I minimize how much I practice them once my dogs are fluent with them.  I have also learned that if weave performance decreases after they have demonstrated fluency that 99% of the time it is due to physical soreness and/or mental stress/fatigue and not due to the weaves themselves.  Weave poles can bring out the best and worst in our dogs and our teamwork.  If a dog is stressed on a course it almost always shows itself in the weave poles.  If a dog is sore it almost always shows itself in the weave poles.

                                                                                                                   Photo by Great Dane Photos

                                                                                                     Photo by Great Dane Photos

I am still amazed that we are able to train our dogs to weave at all - it is truly amazing! 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for taking the time to discuss this. I feel strongly about it and love learning more on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me. Thanks!