Thursday, September 6, 2012

Training a Giant in a Mid-Size Dog Sport

Agility is a sport designed for Border Collies, Aussies, Labs, perhaps Corgis, Papillons, and a few other breeds. It is not, was never, will never be designed for the giant dog. That does not mean that your giant dog cannot participate and even succeed. What this means is, you just have a different process to observe than will someone with a small to medium sized dog. Here are a few important points to remember:

General rules:

  • Seek out an experienced, knowledgeable, experienced trainer. What does that mean? Well, quite frankly, have they accomplished high level/championship titles with any dog? What level are they competing? How long have they been participating in the sport? How were they trained? Observe classes. Don't be afraid to walk away from a trainer/facility if they don't want you to audit classes and ask questions. Does this person continue their training education? Agility is changing all the time - true, the obstacles don't, but somebody somewhere is always coming up with new ideas about how to train an issue, obstacle, or criteria. CE is really important for any educator. 
  • What venue(s) are you interested in competing in? If you're uncertain, do your homework then come back to this question. A trainer should be at least fairly familiar with the different venues available for competition. E.g. My obedience trainer is aware of basic differences in UKC and AKC obedience classes. Therefore, if I were to have an interest in competing in UKC, she could help me to be better prepared. 
  • What is your goal? Do you know yet? Often people start agility with the goal of just learning and seeing if they like it. Does their dog like it. You don't have to start thinking, "I'm going to earn a MACH/C-ATCH/NATCH." But if you want to just play with your dog, is your trainer understanding of that and willing to give you his/her best anyway? This can be important too. 
  • Safety. Agility can be a danger to you and your pet if you're not careful and follow safety rules. Is the class/environment safe and does the instructor focus on safety for you, your classmates, and the dogs? If not, find another place to train. 
  • Should you choose to become competitive once your training reaches that level, does the trainer or facility offer options to help you? For instance, do they have fun matches or offer help in filling out your first trial entry forms? Do they host seminars and other training events to help you increase your knowledge? 
Giant rules: 
  • What breeds does the trainer have experience with? 
    • If they only run small or medium dogs, who have they worked with? Talk to them. Ask the question: At what age should I start jumping my Great Dane? If their answer is, "Not full height until they are at least two years," well, full steam ahead as they seem to have a clue. If they say your (giant) dog can start training as early as six months including starting jumps, they most likely don't have a clue about the growth cycle and differences inherent in giant dogs. But, and this is a big but, feel free to continue pursuing the conversation. If it appears they know that no full height jumps should be done until 18 months plus, then perhaps they'll work out okay. By all means, I'm not saying people can't put their foot in their mouth, but if you have to educate them on your breed's basic limitations, they're unlikely  to be knowledgeable enough to help you with other training challenges. 
  • Will the trainer/class accommodate your big dog? 
    • For instance, if a sequence is set up that includes three tunnels, will the trainer understand you not training the tunnels, at least repetitively? That you only want to do one a class or only when your dog might refuse them perform training drills to make them fun/rewarding? 
    • How about contacts? Your 6, 9, 12 month old giant puppy should not be doing full height/angle contacts. Contacts, particularly the a-frame, can present quite a severe angle. This is hard on any dog's joints but particularly our giants who are not done growing and solidifying at that age. Shoulders are of particular concern as is the neck/spine. Your trainer needs to be able to work with you training on the flat and/or at training height on all contact equipment until the dog is mature. 
    • Weaves - a giant breed (or any maturing dog) should not be weaving A) excessively and B) before maturation at full speed. Weaves require a great deal of spinal flexing. If you YouTube and watch some videos you'll see how much side-to-side motion is involved in the back. You can see this a bit here - pay particular attention at 50 seconds as the view is directly from the rear:
This is just a snippet of ideas that have been cluttering up my brain lately. I hate to see dogs hurt. Our Danes can be just as fabulous in their own right as any other dog in any other performance activity. But there are things to be aware of and to know ahead of time. You can begin training in agility quite young - with any dog. But there are limitations. You can do ground work (working on the flat), teach verbal queues, teach hand signals, teach them to work from a distance, work on a start line stay and release command, teach them to go away from you, come back into you, touch your hand, and to enjoy training. But you must wait for certain parts of the sport - you musn't go "extreme agility" until the dog's growth plates are closed. For giant breed dogs, this is usually between 18 and 24 months. Not waiting could cause permanent damage that will hinder his or her ability to live a long, healthy, comfortable life. 

To read more, visit JP Yousha's website, ChromaDane:


  1. Great points! I also think you have to have patience and to know your dog. Know when you may need to back up or slow down.

  2. You're so right, Jennifer! Knowing your dog, his or her limitations, when to slow down, back up, retrain, when to press forward, try something new, approach something different, seek another trainer/method/tool. All of these are important things to remember.