How To Set Your Puppy Up For Success In Agility

Are you about to get a new puppy, or perhaps wondering how to start your agility journey with a puppy you’ve just acquired? We had a chat with OneMind Dogs Assistant Coach Stefanie Rainer, who is very much focused on this topic right now with her 11-month old female Border Collie, Believe. Stefanie had a lot of excellent advice for people who want to set their puppy up for success in agility.

Tell us about your new puppy!

Believe is a sweet and spunky little girl with a big personality and an even bigger heart. The breeder Dawn Kubichko and the litter came highly recommended to me by my mentor coach Jessica Ajoux. Believe is quick on her feet, thoughtful when learning, and a ton of fun to train. I simply adore her and I am excited for our journey together.

What's your own agility background?

I have been involved in the sport of dog agility for 17 years. Growing up my mom was a dog trainer and she helped shape me into the trainer that I have become. Agility is a shared hobby for the two of us to this day. I began as a junior handler with a Papillon named Storm. Since Storm, I have trained and handled numerous dogs and various breeds. I have grown up in the agility community and I am more passionate about the sport than ever before. I now work as a full time coach as well as a judge for the American Kennel Club.

If you're choosing a puppy specifically for agility, what do you need to consider? (Breed, temperament, breeding, etc.)

If you’re choosing a puppy specifically for agility, I think the first things to consider are your own personal goals. Someone who is looking to compete at the World Championships may be looking for something totally different than someone who is looking for a fun weekend hobby. I think you then need to assess your lifestyle. The Border Collies work for me because they fit my active lifestyle. When we’re not training in agility we are off hiking and swimming. For someone who is only looking to train one night a week, a high-energy working breed would not suit his or her lifestyle well.

Lastly, I think you need to consider the type of trainer you are and what would suit your personality well. For me personally, I enjoy working with a dog that is eager to learn, but not overly pushy. I prefer to work with a dog that needs a little help to gain speed and confidence. For me if I were to assess a litter of puppies, I wouldn’t be drawn to the puppy that was overly dominant, but I also wouldn’t want the shy submissive puppy. When picking an agility dog that I feel I would do best with, I would want something in between the two personalities.

With all of that being said, I don’t believe that there is an exact formula to picking the perfect agility dog. My advice would be to find a breed that works for you and then research different lines and find ones that are healthy and have produced other successful agility dogs. After all of that, I would advise anyone to just follow his or her heart. To me, all of the agility runs are simply icing on the cake. My dogs to me are my pets first and foremost and it’s most important that they are happy and healthy.

How have you done the foundation training with your puppy? Are there any differences with the foundation training for agility puppies vs regular family dogs?

Puppies are like little sponges. A totally clean slate just waiting to absorb all of the knowledge we have to share with them. Believe and I started foundation training as soon as she came home at 8 weeks old. We began to form a relationship and learn about one another, which is the basis for any good agility team. I tested whether she preferred to work for food or toys and I observed her style of play.

I then began shaping basic behaviors like sit, down, and to go into her kennel. I don’t think that the foundation training for agility puppies versus regular family dogs should be a whole lot different. I think it is important for both to be raised to be happy and confident to set them up on a path for success.

When and how did you begin agility training with your puppy? What were some of the first things you started training?

Believe came home at 8 weeks old and exactly one week later I had a trip planned to head down to Florida to train my older dog Nike with OneMind Dogs Coaches Timo & Tuulia Liuhto. This trip was planned long before I knew Believe would be joining my family, but the timing was rather perfect. Although traveling with a new puppy was a lot of work, it was a phenomenal experience for her. She was quickly exposed to lots of new places, sounds, people, and dogs. She became an expert little traveler in no time.

So the first agility exercise she learned with Tuulia was how to offer to go around the wing of a jump. I also worked on Lap Turn, Tandem Turn, and Flick on the flat because those skills are much easier to teach to a puppy and it also helps to balance their leads so they don’t favor one over the other. I taught her to put her rear feet on a bucket, which is a good rear end awareness trick and the foundation training for the 2on2off behavior and I worked on sending her ahead of me to a preplaced reward.

Any advice on how to set a new puppy up for success in agility? What are the most important things to consider?

I have two pieces of advice to give to anyone looking to set up their new puppy for success in agility. The first is to make sure to expose your new puppy to everything. I think it is important that they get comfortable with other dogs, people, new surfaces, and new environments from the very beginning.

The second piece of advice is to not rush. I think the most important thing for any successful agility team is to have a good relationship and that takes time to build. A piece of advice that I got many years ago from my mentor, Diane Bauman was something I didn’t fully understand at the time, but now it makes perfect sense to me. I asked her at what age I could start raising the height of the jump bar for my young dog and she told me that he (my dog) would tell me when he was ready to go up in height. At the time, that advice was frustrating for me because I wanted a specific timeline, but now I see what she meant. If you take the time to listen to the dog, they will tell you when they are ready for more. So as much as we want to start running full courses and training everything with our new puppies, it is so important to take the time to train the foundation skills. They are the building blocks for a successful agility team.

What are your goals with your puppy? When will you start competing with her?

I am a big dreamer and I set big goals for myself. I told Believe’s breeder when I got her that it has been my dream since I was a little girl to represent the United States at the FCI World Championships and that I was looking for a dog to join me on that journey, but that I also completely understand that that is not what is meant for every dog. So, only time will tell if that is what is meant for Believe and I. As for a short-term goal, I plan to enjoy every second of puppyhood and have fun learning and playing with my girl.

Our mission is to give a happy life to dogs by helping people become amazing dog owners. We are passionate about increasing the mutual understanding between the dog and the owner, making a life together more enjoyable for both.