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Utilising Home-Constructed Equipment 

It is an exciting time to be into dogs, and it is an even more exciting time to have a puppy to raise! The world of dogs is bubbling over with new ideas and events. Preparing puppies for what is ahead in their lives, whether it be conformation showing, obedience, tracking, agility, herding, hunting, hearing ear, carting, coaching, coursing, sledding, search and rescue, scent hurdles, guiding, guarding, going to ground, flyball or frisbee can be done sooner than ever. Jane Jeter remembered this article by Peter J. Vollmer and Nancy Bickerton Vollmer which was posted on the AGILEDOGS list. 

Today's knowledgeable puppy raisers are talking about early stimulation and enrichment, bonding, socialisation and subordination - concepts stemming from the realm of animal behaviour research and being successfully applied to puppy rearing.

One particularly fun and exciting way to take advantage of the insights gleaned from animal research is to introduce very young puppies to obstacles.  Working with puppy obstacles can prepare them for the challenges that await them as adults, whether they are in the show ring or climbing a motel stairway on a family vacation! A pup that can show through a soft cloth tunnel, gleefully in a shallow wading pool and scramble over a stack of newspapers when it is seven weeks old will be better prepared to attempt an agility course, a tack laid in difficult terrain, the rough going of herding or hunting events or a backpacking trip in the Sierra Nevada wilderness. A stroll in the park or a turn around the confirmation ring should be as easy as digging in the yard.

Understanding Puppy Abilities
 A major breakthrough in understanding how young, developing mammals are affected by their environment occurred in the 1940s. Dr Donald Hebb, of McGill University, discovered that rats raised in homes as pets far out-performed the laboratory cage-reared group in their ability to solve problems.

Upon further testing, researchers found rats raised under even more stimulating conditions showed less fear when confronted with new experiences, matured faster, were more resistant to disease and were better problem solves as adults.

Since the 1940s, these findings have been confirmed by researchers studying other species, including dogs. In the 1960s, Dr. Michael Fox and his associates tested puppies and fond that early stimulating experiences have similar positive effects on their development.

These discoveries, referred to as early enrichment, as well as the Bar Harbor discoveries of Drs Fuller and Scott (see Gazette, June, July and August 1988) and the wild canine research of Dr. David Mech of Purdue University (see National Geographic, May, 1987) have given the dog fancy new insights into the wonderful , often scary, always complex task of bringing up that beloved, special puppy or long planned and eagerly awaited litter. On the down side, researchers found that if very young dogs were not quickly successful in solving test problems, they might give up and not try again. Sometimes a particular puppy would not only quit, but become highly emotional and begin crying, whining or howling.

Puppies which had a startling, frightening or painful experience while being tested could develop an aversion to the entire test situation and continue to act frightened when subsequently re-tested.

'The more you work with you pup, using safe and effective methods, the closer the bond will become'

Achieving Success
Here's how breeders and new puppy owners can take advantage of the positive effects that early enrichment produces. To make sure all the pups have a worthwhile, positive experience when doing the enrichment exercises, it is important to follow these guidelines. Everyone will have more fun if you don't think of the exercises as test, but as things you can do to help and encourage puppies to use their heads, while learning to overcome fears and apprehensions. In other words, don't ask the puppies to conquer the enrichment tasks on their own. Instead, give them the "answers" to the problems by using the right teaching techniques. As an example, a goal might be to teach a pup to walk through a ladder that is lying on the ground. Instead of starting at one end, and coaxing, pushing or dragging him all the way to the other, try placing his hind legs just inside the last rung and encouraging him to "go for it". In no time, your puppy will by running through the entire ladder as if he were at a football practice session.

Try not to drill puppies with endless repetitions. Be satisfied with little successes, and give them time to assimilate the tasks physically and mentally. A carefree, playful attitude on your part will carry over to the pup's attitude toward the tasks at hand and to you as the team leader.

Recommendations to Breeders
Amanda Gibson's ZephyrPuppy enrichment can begin with daily weighing, starting shortly after birth, and continue through three weeks. Before returning the neonates to mother, briefly rock each pup back and forth, and up and down. Rub the coat briskly with your hands, and gently finger the webbing between the toes. Rub the ears and muzzle, and then invert the pup so it is facing the ceiling, and again, rock back and forth, up and down. 

This handling provides feedback to the central nervous system via the receptor pathways involved in reporting touch and balance, and, if done regularly and consistently, stimulates the developing nervous system. Shortly after their fourth week, the pups begin to explore their surroundings in earnest. At this time, puppy obstacles can be used to encourage problem solving abilities as well as prepare them for new and possibly frightening circumstances that may await them out in the "cold, cruel world.'

But, before rushing out to order a playground built in your backyard, have a clear idea of what you want the pups to accomplish, and a well-thought-out procedure you can use to help them become quickly confident and successful in each enrichment task.

'Obstacles should be geared to your pup's age, size and breed.'

 1. Set up very simple tasks at first, then make sure each puppy is always successful at its beginning attempts. Never go to more difficult or complex level until the pup is comfortable and relaxed at the introductory level.

2. Always use food as a motivator as well as a reward for successful completion of a task. Lack of interest in food often indicates stress, so if the puppies show continued interest in food, assume their stress levels are minimal.

3. Try to resist the temptation to lure the puppy through a task with food. Food is best used as a reward for the successful completion of the task, but don't hesitate to use a food lure if you have a bashful or hesitant puppy.

4. Only do each enrichment exercise three time in a row with each puppy. Then wait at least five minutes before working with the pup again. And, for very young puppies, only do three sets of three repetitions of any one task over a one hour period.

 5. Gradually increase the difficulty of each enrichment task. Take a period of days to work toward the task's final level of complexity. Proceed carefully and slowly to make things more challenging.

6. Before starting, allow the pups to familiarize themselves with each obstacle or new situation by giving them ample time to walk around and sniff things out. To help each puppy succeed, start at the end or 'finish line' of an enrichment task that involves the negotiation of an obstacle. Then work the pup back towards the beginning or 'start line.'

7. When working with a raised obstacle, make sure to guide the pup with both hands instead of the leash.

8. Never push, pull, drag or shove your dog over or through an obstacle. If a pup hesitates and refuses to proceed, don't continue to coax it, instead immediately pick it up and place it at an easier position, closer to the end of the obstacle.

9. If the unexpected happens, and despite your care, a pup is inadvertently injured or frightened, make sure that before working with it again, it is physically able to perform the task easily. Take time to rebuild confidence by doing very simple tasks before returning to the task that was involved in the negative experience. Then, begin that enrichment task at the lowest possible level of difficulty.

10. Never allow young children to work with a pup and obstacles unless they are closely supervised.

Selecting, Building Puppy Obstacles
With these guidelines in mind, consider choosing and building the puppy obstacles to create stimulating, fun and challenging tasks. Bear in mind that the ones you select should be geared to your pup's age, size and breed, and that puppies should always be closely supervised and helped along during enrichment sessions. The recommended ages to begin are four to eight weeks, depending on breed and maturity.

1. Start by providing surfaces of various texture for the puppies to walk on. Cloth, plastic, wood and wire can be used indoors; crunchy leaves, grass, gravel or sawdust could be used outdoors. Remember that some of these items may make noise when stepped upon. Start the pups by placing only their hind feet on the new surface, praise them, and when they walk away from the strange stuff., immediately offer a food reward.

2. Make tunnels from cardboard boxes with their ends cut out to the pup's size. Paper roll cores, large diameter plastic plumbing pipe, duct pipe, or cardboard concrete forms can all be used as tunnels. Place the pup just inside the tunnel exit facing you, and offer a food reward along with plenty of praise when she walks out. Do three in a row, backing her further into the tunnel at each repetition. A children's collapsible play tunnel can be introduced by first holding it fully folded for the puppy to step through, and then gradually expanding it. How many in a row can you do? Yes, three is the number.

 3. Make barriers at an appropriate, safe height for puppies to step, jump or scramble over. When introducing, place them halfway over the barrier set at its lowest position. We have found it is best for jump barriers to be inclined to the pups can choose for themselves a comfortable place to cross.

4. Place a small piece of bait on a hard rubber ball. For the introduction, let the puppy take the food off the ball while you're holding it, then place the ball in a corner. Once the puppy gets the idea, he'll learn to trap the ball to get the treat. This task encourages paw-eye coordination.

5. Make a low, wide ramp by covering several pieces of heavy cardboard with carpeting or toweling, then tape securely together with filament type strapping tape. The ramp can be elevated on one end using two-by-fours. When introducing, place the pup at the low end, and encourage him to walk off using praise and a food reward. Narrower, steeper, cleated wooden ramps can be used for older, better coordinated puppies. They love to charge up and down and leap off into outer space.

6. Place a small piece of bait in a large paper bag or cardboard box, and encourage the pup to find it by placing him or her halfway inside. Gradually start the pup from further away. Remember to only do three repetitions in a row, even if the pup wants to do more.

 7. Teach the puppies to get their feet wet! Start by placing a puppy in an empty bathtub with a skid-proof mat. Encourage the pup to explore the tub by using food rewards to overcome any hesitancy. Add a small amount of warm water before introducing the pup. Over the next several sessions, gradually raise the water level. Slowly acclimate the pups to the point where you can turn on the water while they are in the tub.

8. Teach the pups to negotiate stairs by first having them go down the steps. Start by placing them on the last step first, then use praise and a food reward to encourage then to walk off. Reverse the procedure for going up steps. Remember that even if a puppy is at each with the stairs at home, it may need help in an unfamiliar location.

More Challenging Puppy Obstacles
These obstacles are recommended for pups age eight to sixteen weeks, depending on breed and maturity. As puppies become older and better coordinated, more complex and challenging obstacles can be introduced. Here is a list of enriching tasks that can be used by new puppy owners as well as breeders.

1. Teach your pup to ride on a cart or wagon. A simple cart can be made by securely taping several pieces of heavy cardboard to an equipment dolly. Start the pup out by holding the dolly in a corner to prevent movement. Gradually teach the pup to stay on the dolly by offering a food reward only when it is up on the cart. Do at least six sets of three repetitions at this level fore beginning to move the cart. When first moving the cart, make sure to hold the pup securely with your free hand, or enlist a helper. Only move the cart a few inches, then reward the pup while holding it on the cart. Do this twice more, moving the cart a little further each time. If you gradually increase the cart's movement, it won't be long until the pup will happily ride unassisted - and be the envy of the neighborhood. (A similar technique can be used to teach a puppy to ride a children's merry-go-round).

2. Teach your pup to slide down a small child's slide by first placing her at the bottom of the slide. Encourage your pup to "slide off" using plenty of praise, while supporting her with your hands. Use a food reward when she touches the ground.

3. Teach your pup to swim comfortably, using a children's wading pool. Start by using the methods described to introduce the puppy to the bath tub. Gradually add more warm water so that by the end of the week, the puppy is swimming freely.

4. Teach your pup to slide down the play slide into the water by first working with each obstacle independently. Before combining them, make sure each one is mastered. Then, starting with only one-half inch of warm water in the pool, place the puppy at the very bottom of the slide. Have your camera ready!

5. Puppies that have been introduced to rigid tunnels can learn to shove through a soft cloth tunnel. You can make one by stitching 60 inch (or more) wide fabric into a tub, and inserting flexible poly pipe into a channel sewn into one end. Start by holding the tunnel with the fabric gathered up. Have a helper hold the pup, while you encourage it to step through and immediately reward this super effort with praise and a treat. Slowly extend the cloth, holding it up so they can peek through to begin with.

If you are an apartment dweller or don't have easy access to the great outdoors, challenging, fun and stimulated obstacles can be concocted from common household items.

1. Teach your pup to jump over an inclined broom stick which has been placed across a hallway. Once that challenge is conquered, progress to vacuum cleaner and turn it on.

2. Make a puppy slide by taping together thick cardboard cut from an appliance box. Join the pieces with double-faced carpet tape to ensure a smooth slide surface. Place the cardboard over a stairway and secure the top and bottom to the stairs with the double-sided tape.

3. Teach your pup to ride a puppy wagon, and then introduce him to the elevator in your building. Give him a puppy wagon ride to the elevator.

4. Folding chairs or a folding kitchen stool can be used like a ladder. Teach the pup to walk through them while they are laid flat on the floor.

5. A tunnel can be simply made from an old sheet draped over chairs or a coffee table. 

There are many other obstacles and enriching, challenging tasks you can use to turn your puppies on to learning and life The more you work with your pup using safe and effective methods, the closer that special bond will become between you. Your pup will not only be confident in facing new and challenging situations, but will learn to trust and work with you just for the fun of it. No matter what activities or goals you have planned for its future, you and your dog will be better off because you took time to enrich its early life.

About the authors...
Peter Vollmer
holds a degree in psychology and a teach certification, has worked as a canine and feline behaviour consultant and helped develop pet owner education programs.

Nancy Bickerton Vollmer, a Shetland Sheepdog fancier for 13 years, competes in obedience and herding. She designed and wrote a herding instinct certification for the American Shetland Sheepdog Association, and she is a member of AKC's Herding Development Committee.

Reprinted with kind permission of the authors.
Photo credits: NCDL, Michael Theiss, David Baker, Pedigree Petfoods, Amanda Gibson, Joanne Apostlou.

From Laura McIntyre
I have a six month old puppy, who started 'agility' training at eight weeks. What I mean is that he could walk across a board that was still touching the ground, and crawl through a tunnel. There was NO stress on his bones at all, and now, since he is in an intro to agility class, it really helps. Obstacles that he can do are: Table, Curved tunnel, low tire, jump (stepping across things) and he can do a mini-mini a frame that is simply a tiny ramp that is about one foot off the ground. I do a lot of attention games with him (throw an item and see if he will come when called) which I think are wonderful activities.

I do not agree with getting puppies out on equipment that is above the ground (Teeters, Normal jumps, etc.) until they are grown. But there is no harm in getting them to go through a tunnel. My pup loved it at eight weeks. (04/01/01)


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