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Good things come in small packages...

When asked to write this article, Lucy Parkin of Cleverpawz was both shocked - and humbled - to think that someone thought her words and musings would be worth publishing for all to see. After the initial shock wore off, the panic began to set in. She had never written an article before and began to wonder if she had enough experience and knowledge to share. Regardless of her trepidation, she put pen to paper, and this is the result.

Training small dogs is a real rollercoaster of a ride. They can be delightful, funny, endearing, incredibly frustrating, stubborn, distracted, very noisy, surprising and amazing - and all that in a one minute agility run!

Just like their stature, every emotion in a Small dog is condensed and intensified which is fantastic if the emotion is a positive one, but can be a nightmare if it is a negative one. Not only that, but every breed has its own individual traits and nuances.

Some small breeds are extremely high energy. I am thinking of the terriers that I train who constantly demand their handlers to issue precise, up-to-the-second commands or face the wrath of the yap-yap-yap. Other breeds such as the Cavalier King Charles Spaniels seem to have a flip switch which determines whether it is their ears or nose which is taking priority. Then you have the Pugs. This delightful breed can be very successful in agility but can have a tendency to be very stubborn and demand a patient, enthusiastic handler.

Of course, these traits are not set in stone, and every individual dog has its very own district personality, as every dog owner knows. With all that said, I do think that training small dogs has to have one very important element in common.

If you want your dogs to follow your instructions, it is imperative that you first get its attention as their handler before teaching them any agility equipment. Once you have your dogs undivided attention, you can train them successfully in agility. I believe the best time to develop this focus is as a puppy.

Play is the key here. It must be fun and rewarding as lots of small breeds have attention spans to match their size, i.e. tiny. Having said that, it is never too late to start playing and developing focus. I also see lots of rescue dogs who simply don't know how to play, but with patience and time this can be overcome.

One of our secret weapons is the squeaky treat bag. It was developed by one of Cleverpawz Pugility handlers and incorporates a bright furry treat bag with a Velcro fastening. In one end is a squeaker. The pugs especially love this and follow it intently around the course as they know a treat of chicken or liver is on its way when they finish.

Another tactic we employ is to use a more experienced dog to teach a beginner the basics of the tunnel. Lots of our beginners were a little wary of going into a tunnel, especially when it was curved, but send a more experienced dog in first and they are more than happy to follow it through. A little unconventional, I know, but it works! It also works in reverse if you get a dog that won't come out of the tunnel - and we have a few - send in another dog to flush them out.

The second most important element of training is reward. Lots of small breeds will not work simply for the joy of working , at least not the way that some of the other breeds will. Of course, some larger breeds also fall into this category. Think of it this way. How many people would go to work without getting paid? I think only a few, and those few may be doing it as volunteers for a better cause. Small dogs don't volunteer! They need to be paid at the correct rate for their work. High value treats or favourite toys are always a good wage.

Not an easy option...
After training and competing with small dogs, I have come to the conclusion that lots of people simply don't realise
how much hard work and effort goes in to getting them around an agility course. Small dogs are totally different to handle and train than larger breeds. They often don't like to work too far ahead from their handlers until they have gained several years experience in the agility circuit. Of course, this means for the Small dog handler lots of running!

Small dogs also seem to be more cautious when it comes to negotiating a course. You can often see them weighing up the options and deciding how to take a jump or other obstacle. You could say that they literally look before they leap. This makes it even more important to get your pre-cuing and shaping commands correct so as to work in tandem with your dog. I do a lot of training exercises at Cleverpawz which focus on these techniques and it is amazing to see how well these small dogs respond.

Because of their size, they have a tighter turning circle which means you can run further up to a jump without the fear of sending them wide whereas, if you did this with a larger dog, they would land further away from the jump and turn wider around the wing.

Small dogs are definitely not the easy option. Some can get de-motivated easily and pick up on the handler's emotions if they think they have made a mistake. It is very important, in the training stages, to never let your small dog know if it has gone wrong. Praise and encouragement is of the utmost importance.

In conclusion, small dogs can be great fun to train in Agility, but they do require lots of hard work and effort. They are not the easy option, but when focused can be amazing and amusing. If you are prepared for lots of bending, coaxing, cajoling, laughing, running and looking silly, then a small dog is the one for you. If not stick to a proper dog.

Only kidding!  

About the author...
Lucy Parkin is the owner and trainer at Cleverpawz Dog Activity & Training Centre.

Her previous dogs were Dylan the Collie and Prince the Cavalier Kling Charles Spaniel, both sadly missed.

Dogs in the family - all small - include:-

  • Bailey (Ruby Rascal) -  Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (4 years) Grade 6

  • Chester (Chestnut Lightening) - Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (5 years) Grade 5

  • Jet (Pelynka Jet Spellcaster) - Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (2 years) Grade 4

  • Bon Bon (Clever Bonnie Belladonna) Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (2 years) Grade 4

  • Barack (Afterglow Mr President) American Cocker Spaniel (3 years) Grade 3

For more details on anything to do with training small dogs e-mail:-  or visit

First published 17/01/12


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