Is there a difference in handling/training?

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Whatever the size, all dogs have four legs and a tail. Handlers need to form a working relationship with their dog. The agility equipment and courses are the same or very similar. We use the same commands etc. etc. So is there a difference in handling/training a small dog compared to a large dog? If so, why is this the case and should it be so? Lynne Stephens who currently runs both a Standard and a Mini dog considers the question.

Having been asked to consider what I felt to be the differences in handling a small (Mini/Midi) or large (Maxi/Standard) dog in agility, I began by comparing my own two currently competitive dogs.


Quiz & Nicson

Viva la difference
At first, there seemed to be a number of differences between these two. The most obvious is the comparative speed of Quiz, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Chess, a Border Collie. There is also the fact that Quiz seems much happier if I am running beside him, whilst Chess really does not have all that time to waste on waiting for me.

When running Quiz, I also spend more time looking at the ground, (though whether this should be the case is debatable), making it difficult at times to re-orient myself for the next part of the course and much more likely that I will end up on the ground. This has happened on occasion!

With Quiz I am usually able to get into a sensible handling position, performing manoeuvres and turns, which would be totally impossible with Chess. However, this also means that I do far more running with Quiz and leave Chess to do more of the legwork by himself. I seem to need to be fitter, therefore, with Quiz, which, I guess, dispels the myth that as one becomes older (more mature?) and less agile, one should invest in a little dog!

However, as time goes by, I wonder whether this difference in handling the two dogs really boils down to some of the differences in initial training and my initial expectations of them both.

I have certainly trained a variety of breeds of dog for different disciplines and the observations I have made above could easily have applied to the difference between Chess, (my fast border collie) and Scratch (my husband’s steadier border collie) or Blitz (my much-loved but now departed, steady Belgian Shepherd Dog). And I do not have to think too hard to think of some of the best small dogs on our own British circuit and overseas who need to be, and are, indeed, handled in the same way as some of our faster standard-sized dogs.

Therefore, the more I began analysing the differences I had noted with my two current dogs, the more I felt that they were merely differences in those dogs and not fundamental differences between handling a small dog and a large dog. Perhaps some of these differences were purely the result of different early training techniques used with the dogs, and different expectations in terms of outcome.

But then again..
I was asked to write an article on the differences between training and handling small and large dogs. So, surely there must be some? Once again I returned to the original question.

When training, it is certainly true that Chess has a far longer concentration span and does seem to pick up new ideas more quickly than Quiz. Introducing a new concept to Quiz takes a far greater number of short, fun training sessions, particularly if I am trying to change a 'bad' habit previously trained in!

But can this really be attributed to size? I’m sure we could all think of large breeds - which may or may not be Border Collies - that need the very little and often approach (many of you probably own and train them yourselves) and small ones who can 'go all day.'

Finally, then at the risk of becoming extremely unpopular, I have come to the following conclusions.

  1. Fundamentally there are no real differences between training and handling different sizes of dogs; but there are training and handling methods and techniques that suit different dogs of any breed.

  2. There are also some breeds or individuals within that breed more suited to our particular area of interest, begging the question 'Who are we doing it for and how realistic are our expectations for some dogs?'

But that is food for thought for another day.

So what the problem?
However, there are, particularly in this country I feel, some very fundamental and deep-rooted differences in the way that we treat our small dogs and train them for top class competition.

For example, if a large dog began to develop an irrational fear of a particular event or piece of equipment etc. handlers would probably be far more likely to try to remain positive and calm and try to play through the particular difficulty. But, how many handlers have you seen cuddling and coaxing one of the smaller varieties, when some upbeat positive handling and reinforcement would have done more to solve and not compound the problem.

If a large dog is unable to climb the A-frame, most handlers would, I suspect (and hope), first look to the fitness of their dogs. This would also be true of some small dog handlers I know. However, I have, sadly, overheard too many criticisms of the particular pieces of equipment in the small dog rings. For example, heard at a recent show, “So many dogs are not making the A frame, there must be something wrong with it!” On closer observation, I felt that most of the dogs having difficulties were a little on the pampered and portly side.

No disrespect is meant to any handlers
However... I do think that we need to look carefully at our own motives for owning and competing with our small breeds. If we really do just want them to be cuddly, pampered pets - and there is no reason why not - is it fair to be asking them to suddenly become top athletes at the weekend? If we do, however, intend to compete with them, I would venture to suggest that we should also ensure that they remain fit enough to participate in the sport they (we?) so love.

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Attitude is everything
It is not just the attitude of the handlers that has to change, however, if we are to begin to see the true potential and, consequently obtain some real 'street cred' for some of our smaller canine companions.

Clubs and instructors also have to play their part by taking small and medium sized dogs seriously and offering the same levels of help and expertise at club level to those who choose to own and train smaller breeds. I do realise that this can be a little more demanding and may tax the ingenuity and patience of some. But anyone who has recently had the good fortune to watch the small dog ambassadors from home and abroad will know that we are not yet fully exploiting all the expertise we undoubtedly have in this country to make the best of our talent in the two smaller height categories.

Not all dogs of any breed or size have the potential to be world-beaters. However, those that do need to be trained and worked with a positive attitude. This, I strongly feel, depends on the handler and dog in question and on the quality of expertise that is sought in coaching these teams. It does not, in my opinion, have anything to do with the size of the dog.

About the author...
Lynne Stephens
has been training dogs for a variety of disciplines for the last 25 years. In the last ten years she has trained two CKCS to Advanced level and one to Senior (with one more win to go to Advanced), and has recently won into Senior with her standard Border Collie. She has qualified for most major finals including Olympia, Crufts and the Agility Voice Mini Pairs Knock Out.

This year she has qualified for Crufts again with her mini dog, Quiz and in the Mini-Maxi pairs with her Border Collie, Chess. Husband Pete is her mini partner.

Lynne also coaches Pete with his CKCS, Nicson and both represented Great Britain this year at the World Agility Championships.

From Rachel Woods
This article emphasises just how different dogs can be, not just by size but by breed, temperament, attitude and confidence.  I know of Minis that work well ahead of their handlers as well as those that like to be beside or like to chase the handler round the course. A style will work well if that suits the dog's needs and style. In the same vein, we have all seen the collies that work miles from their handlers. But what about all the ones you see that are determined to be stuck to their handler's legs à la obedience - many who spin in front of obstacles and certainly provide a tripping hazard. A dog-handler combination must try to find a style that works for both parties.

I have neither a little or a big dog but one that sits firmly on the fence as a Midi but he is also happy at full height. I find myself altering styles depending on jump heights. Despite the little guy having rubber feet, he has a job take full height fences at severe angles so I don't expect him to. He just doesn't see them in time (that and the fact that he gives the preceding fence about a metre clearance either side.) He actually jumps too big to make some right angled combinations.  Because of this, I have to change approaches to fences to help him and me. Also with the extra 1/4 second he spends in the air at each fence, he gives me time to be with him for a good part of a course.

However, when running at Midi height, I am very much steering him from behind as his acceleration over Midi fences is quite frankly scary. If we ever get the contacts right watch out world! It has taken some years, but we are now at a point where both styles suit us.

Size is, in my view, one of the more irrelevant factors when it comes to handling styles. More important should be the dog's physical ability, speed and fitness (not necessarily diminished in a smaller dog), attitude to agility and confidence.  We also have to look at the handlers ability, physical fitness and speed. 

It can be seen from the many more senior agility competitors that succeed with their dogs despite never having a hope of keeping up with them in speed. They do the sensible thing and train their dogs to either work at a distance or, if they aren't concerned about speed, they teach them to slow up a bit.  Which they choose obviously depends on how competitive the handler is. (12/09/2017)

From Soraya Porter...
I'd like to make a few comments about the 'Big, Little' article. Firstly I think the author is very brave to put 'her head in the lion's mouth.' Such an emotive subject is bound to create comment.

I only run a small dog. Please note I say small rather than Mini — a much more sensible title - but I train people with large dogs and medium ones as well.

I think part of the problem is that people think that anything other than a Standard dog has to be treated differently. As a matter of course. Standard dog handlers are taught how to cope with a dog that is much faster than their running ability. They teach their dogs how to work ahead. How many of the two smaller height categories are lucky enough to have been taught how to work their dogs away from them? It is expected the dog will run alongside them and that is how they are taught.

With the exception of very small dogs or breeds like Pekes, most dogs can run faster than their handlers, and should be encouraged to work ahead if at all possible. BUT they need their trainer to show them how to do it! In open competition at my club, my Mini can beat the fastest Collies on occasions, and has been taught to run and be handled like one with regard to working ahead.

The real difference in my limited experience is in the motivation.
This is not a difference between large dogs and small ones, but a difference between working sheep breeds and others. A dog such as a collie - and I realise there will always be exceptions - comes pre-wired with a drive to work. Other breeds need to know 'what's in it for them'? The trick is to find out what motivates that dog and use it to get them to work for you. What may come naturally to some breeds to work away from the handler, has to be taught to other dogs. A handler has to spend time training in that 'motoring' ability to the highest degree that that individual dog can give.

Repetition is another bugbear.
A sheep herding breed may be able to take as much repetition as is felt necessary for that training point. Other breeds get bored. They switch off. They've done it twice and then they begin to wonder if they've done something wrong, and put in variations in an effort to please. Use a variety of methods to train a point if you want to keep this type of dogs interest.

Lastly - overweight and babying.
Many dogs of all sizes are overweight. The difference is that a large dog may well still have enough strength from its back legs, and momentum, to be able to scale the A-frame. Although a substantial obstacle, it is less of one to a Standard, compared to say a Toy breed. So people notice that fat, large breed less than the similar small breed. Yes, many dogs do need to loose weight, but are we really being fair to smaller dogs in asking for them to do a full size A-frame? My dog doesn't have a problem, but many fit, slim, small dogs do.

As to the babying issue, perhaps that handler doesn't understand the negative effects of their actions. Has anyone taken the time to explain it?

I am not a 'moaning Mini' handler.
I do think that there are many clubs who don't give their smaller dogs and handlers the help they need. This may be because they think they are a waste of time. However, I would be inclined to say that it is more likely that the trainer is not aware of the motivation, drive and repetition issues. 

You may argue that I am saying treat them differently. All dogs are different and may need a variety of methods to train them. However, the quality of their training should be the same regardless of size and so should the goal — a dog that can work confidently ahead of the handler, responding to commands with drive and determination... and having a wonderful time!

Apologies if I am 'teaching Granny to suck eggs' but I just felt I had to put my 'two pennyworth' in. 12/09/2017

From Penny Cockerill...
Further to the article by Lynne and comments by Soraya, I think they both had valid points to make - but in a way, are they missing the point? Surely the training would be much better aimed at the breed rather than the size.

As a terrier owner, some might say I could never take agility seriously! On the other hand, my Staffie/Jack Russell midi chose the sport herself when she began vaulting the furniture, and has never lost her enthusiasm or drive, as Sylvia Trkman would say.

I have to work her from behind because of her speed, but training a collie MUST have a different perspective from training a terrier or hound or other type, for that matter. I am perfectly happy training with all other breeds. I just know I have to be patient and keep hold of my sense of humour! We WILL get that clear round!

P.S. Wonderful, wonderful illustrations by Kim to the training by size article!

Cartoons: Roo Roo Design