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Dedicated to the smallest Star in the Skye...

Chihuahuas are known for their tiny size and huge personalities. They can be feisty and sassy - and sometimes aggressive - and they can also be incredibly stubborn. One thing they are definitely not known for their sporting abilities or trainability. Naomi Hosker admits they are not the easiest breed to run, but she wouldn't have it any other way...

Toy breeds are just the same as any other dog breed, just smaller. They are intelligent, athletic and very much trainable in any field. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am passionate about toy breeds, especially Chihuahuas. I chose to have a chihuahua to prove if they’re treated like bigger dogs they are amazing and aren’t the classic snappy handbag dog everyone thinks they are. 

I got into dog training and subsequently agility with my first dog, a Chihuahua X called Skye (The Star in the Skye AW/G) who sadly passed away September 2019. I never intended to compete in agility but did a “puppy taster session” when Skye was around six months old at a local training facility and she took to it straight away and loved it. From then on we were hooked and went on to compete when she reached 18 months old.

Skye was a real ‘poster girl' for the breed
She was only one of a handful of tiny dogs I knew that made it to Grade 7. She taught me a great deal as we worked our way up the grades unexpectedly fast - especially for a 2.4kg dog. We enjoyed every minute together. She always gave 110% even though the jumps were almost double her height and the see saw took ages to tip! I know many people grew to love her bizarre jump action and enjoyed watching her run. Skye was never Champ material, but we had a blast running clears on the tricky G6/7 courses and that's all that mattered to me. 

When I started agility, I was quite a shy person. I had no idea what response I would get from fellow competitors to my tiny dogs. Without Skye and the agility community's support, I would never have had the confidence I now have. I remember well our first measure where the measurers laughed at her and signed her book, just glancing at her from a distance and not making her go anywhere near the measure. That didn't give me much confidence for our Grade 1 debut.

I currently have two tiny dogs - a young and very small Chihuahua called Eevee and a G2 Miniature Pinscher named Raine who is very athletic and intelligent - a born agility dog.  She will often get a concept in about half the time it takes a Chihuahua to learn the same thing. Take housetraining for example. Raine was housetrained by 10 weeks. I aim to housetrain the Chihuahuas by 4-6 months which I know some people may find shocking.

Tips for training tinies
I believe that Chihuahuas are just big dogs in small bodies. The basic concepts of training Chihuahuas are pretty much the same for them as any other dogs. They may require more time and patience than most other breeds, but this doesn't make them any less rewarding which is probably why I love them. It's the training journey that's the enjoyable part for me. If the end result is amazing, it's a bonus.

For a young Chihuahuas, there are all the same worries about stressing their joints, bones and muscles during development at young ages by overdoing walking or training, just as you would with the larger breeds. In Toy breeds, the growth plates still do not close any quicker despite most reaching adult size and weight by 6-8 months which is why I start all my small dogs at about six months on a joint supplement.

Training is a hobby and is fun for me so it should be for the dogs too, which is often something I feel can be easily overlooked. In my opinion, the more they enjoy training the better the end results. If a dog doesn't enjoy working with me, then there isn't any point in continuing with that exercise.

For puppies, I love to do trick training and shaping, so I do loads when they are between 8-16 weeks old. I try to do one five minute session a day of something to help bonding with the puppy and develop that 'training mentality' which doesn't always come naturally in toy breeds.

Chihuahuas aren't naturals for doing agility nor learning complex behaviours, so working together is my main focus. It is far more important than learning specific /more complex behaviours which will come with time and effort if you want to achieve them and have the tools / training to help you do so.

I believe they should be treated and trained the same as any Collie or Labrador. You may just need a few tricks up your sleeve to get them on side and working with you against their natural stubbornness.

As rule, I try to play to the strengths of their breed - and not their weaknesses - so as to set them up for success. For example, neither of my dogs is particularly good at a 'down' as it' s a challenging behaviour for them physically, so we only do a small amount as puppies. I would never use a ‘down stay' at agility as they are physically more comfortable in a 'sit stay.'

One of the downsides to training very small dogs is spending most of your time on your hands and knees, especially when they are puppies. You also need to bend down when rewarding the dog from your hand which is probably something most Medium /Large breed handlers wouldn't think about. Even on a normal dog walk, having them off lead is great, but the bending down to reattach the leads is always a chore.

Competing with tiny dogs
People always ask me if I worry about squashing or treading on my dogs. The answer is no! I can be a clumsy person about home so the puppies learn quite quickly to keep out of my way. I can honestly say that if a dog has been trodden on once, it’s not happened again. Training and clear commands - either verbal or body language - when running a course mean it's not a concern for me.

Every time I walk an agility course, I test the see saw to ascertain it's tipping point. The variation can be amazing!

Weather can play a role and I did find if very wet under foot Skye struggled much more with the jumps than dry ground. Luckily she was never a fair weather Chihuahua and have very fond memories of a very wet Adams Easter in 2018 where she ran amazingly well bringing back five trophies and many rosettes.

Indoors in sand arenas are the best and most consistent ground to run on for us. Often there can be irregularities on grassy surfaces that other handlers might not notice for their larger dogs that would affect my dogs.

Skye had Canine Guild massage every 4-6 weeks throughout her competing life to keep her in tip top form which is something I will do for Eevee if she makes the grade.  In my professional opinion, I believe that every competing dog, regardless of breed, would benefit from it at some time in their agility career.

Finally I watch my dogs' weight carefully to keep them lean and muscular. As a vet, I see too many overweight dogs. Whether leading an active lifestyle or not, it's especially important that tiny dogs do not stress their joints or heart by carrying excessive weight.

Exciting times ahead post COVID-19
My little Eevee is now a year old and has some mighty big paws to fill after Skye. Being a tiny 1.75kg, I have no idea whether she will excel at agility or even be able to jump 30cm. We are currently training on 10-15cm jumps, learning running contacts and weaves, running mini courses and, most importantly, we are having fun!

Whatever she does, whether it be it agility or heelwork to music or anything else she turns her paws to, we will have a blast out there and show the world what Chihuahuas can do.

I love the breed. Their little characters and their attitude is awesome! Eevee and Raine will be flying the flag of 'Team Flying Hamster' in Skye's memory for hopefully many years to come.

About the author...
Naomi Hosker
qualified as a vet in 2012 having dreamt of it since childhood.

She got her first dog Skye in December 2014, having ridden and competed horses in dressage and show jumping before that. In early 2016 she started agility and has never looked back!

She lives and works close to St. Albans in Hertfordshire with her other half James, the two dogs - Raine and Eevee, a tortoise called Henry and 20 Guinea pigs! 

First published 25th October 2020

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