TOYS IN AGILITY © First Published in AgilityAction Magazine Online - May, 2004

By Darlene Arden

Whoever said Toy dogs aren't real dogs has never seen a little one run an agility course. The message is brought home loud and clear when you watch the littlest, those that jump eight inches, fly around a course. This month and next, I will highlight three terrific Toy dogs including this year's winner of the 8" class at the American Kennel Club Nationals.

First, meet Barbara Swisher, of New Jersey who runs her Affenpinscher, Ch. Boda Twixt 'N Tween of Avatar CD, NAJ, OA and says it's the same as running a larger dog since most of the obstacles are adjusted for the dog's size. "The exceptions are the contact obstacles (A-frame, teeter, and dog walk) which are the same height no matter what the dog's size may be. This sometimes seems a bit unfair as the little guys really have to scramble to get up the tall A-frame," she points out.

They're like kids who just got off of a rollercoaster and are asking, "Can we go again?"

Janell Copas of Texas runs Brussels Griffons. Her little ones are pulling on the leash, wanting to go over the A-frame by the second or third week of beginners' class. "They're like kids who just got off of a rollercoaster and are asking, 'Can we go again?'" says Copas. Her first agility dog was 11-year-old Adam (now retired), the only Brussels Griffon to have earned the American Kennel Club's Master Agility Championship (July 22, 2001). Adam also has a CDX and has done a Freestyle demo. Copas also competed in agility with her obedience champion, Dixie. Dixie has earned the MX and AXJ. They didn't start agility until Dixie was 8 years old and she retired at ten. She is currently competing with two dogs - Captain, who has his MX, MXJ and is close to earning a MACH, and Frolic, who just started in Novice. Frolic earned four 1st places in her first trial.

I have always approached training with my Brussels Griffons as though they were capable of doing anything a Golden Retriever or Border Collie could do, and they have proven to do just that.

Running a small dog has its challenges. Swisher worries about stepping on, or tripping over, her small dog. "There's also the problem of not being able to see the little dog out of the corners of your eyes the way you can with a larger one," she adds. "You just have to trust that the dog is with you. Sometimes he is - and sometimes not."

Swisher, in her 70s, has trained a Belgian Sheepdog but didn't run him herself because he was too fast for her. The training is the same, though. Swisher starts with jump bars flat on the ground and never does weaves before the dog is at least a year old. "Because small dogs' growth plates close a bit sooner than larger ones, they may be able to do some sequences earlier, but I never want to take a chance on it," says Swisher.

Copas finds that her Griffs learn quickly when they're young. She has two puppies who, by 15 weeks, were able to run a small obstacle course made up of two very short jumps, a tire set all the way down touching the ground, and a tunnel. "They will run off my right or left. I started teaching them the agility stuff by accident when I saw one of them hop over a short jump that was in the backyard. I just went with it and started asking them to do it and rewarding them with a treat. They were so eager and it seemed to come so easily."

Donna, the Italian Greyhound puppy, loves the toybox
Photo: Lilian Barber .

If you still have any doubts that many Toys are high level athletes in small packages, be prepared to change your mind.

Copas says that her slightly larger, faster Griffon was much easier to run than her smaller, slower dog. "With smaller dogs I think you have to be careful that you don't get too far ahead of them," Copas notes. "It's easy to be faster than they are and while you want to motivate them to go as fast as possible, they may actually go slower or lose interest if you run too fast for them."

Copas had to learn to take shorter running steps and try to pace herself with her dog's pace when running the smaller dog. "If I didn't do that, I'd get ahead and then have to slow down and wait for him and that caused timing problems on the course." She has twice run larger dogs in class for fun and finds it quite different. She believes it would require additional training to get used to it.

Copas' biggest concern with her little dog is safety when going to and from the ring since there can be a large crowd of handlers and dogs at the ring entrance, "Some dogs get pretty excited before, and even after, their runs so I want to be careful that there is no dog-to-dog interaction in those sometimes tight places. Otherwise, I've never had any problem with injuries on the course."

Although Toys are not fragile, there are accommodations that should be made. Dogs should be carefully trained on lower equipment before graduating to the full height equipment. A fall off the dogwalk or A-Frame could cause injury to any size dog, but it's an especially long way down for a little one. Also, it would be folly to "reward" a run by swinging most small dogs around at the end of a rope or toy. A Toy dog can be badly injured if swung around on the end of a toy, and a Toy dog's teeth can be pulled out of alignment by doing that. It's simple to find a safer reward for a job well done.

"I feel that the most important skill in agility for a little dog is weaving," says Copas. She believes that many small dogs never learn to weave properly. "I see handlers stepping side to side and even using their hands to encourage their dogs in and out of the poles. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking away and valuable seconds are lost. I think this happens because many small dog handlers just don't have high enough expectations. They don't think that their little dogs are capable of excelling at the weave poles so they don't take the time to teach them properly. I have always approached training with my Brussels Griffons as though they were capable of doing anything a Golden Retriever or Border Collie could do and they have proven to do just that."

Swisher says Affens aren't the easiest dogs to train for agility but she thinks it depends upon the individual dogs, "My boy is only two years old, so perhaps with maturity he will become more reliable. Right now, it's one of those 'when he's good, he's very, very good,' but when he's not - oh, my!"

Copas has never trained any other breed for agility but she has experienced great success in training her Brussels Griffons for both agility and obedience. "Griffs, in general, are very smart. I do think that some individuals lend themselves better to training than others. Some Griffs are shy and timid, and that can be difficult to overcome. I find that a lot of progress can be made if the dog is at least food-driven. I also like to see prey drive. If they will chase and attack a toy then they usually will learn to retrieve fairly easily. I think this is a sign of confidence. While agility is a great confidence builder, I think it also requires a certain amount of confidence at the start."

If you still have any doubts that many Toys are high-level athletes in small packages, be prepared to change your mind. Next month, we'll meet Tigger, a Papillon who is second highest rated AKC agility dog of all breeds in the United States.

If anyone knows about running small dogs in agility, it's Robin Kletke, who won the 8" division in the AKC National Agility Championships with his Papillon. "I chose to run an 8" dog because we could," says Kletke. "We got Tigger because he was small, adorable, and would sit in my wife's lap." At that time they were running their Afghans at 24" in agility and heard that Paps make good agility dogs. They didn't get Tigger solely to be an agility dog. "It was some time after we had been running him that we realized how gifted he really is."

Kletke is currently running a new MACH Border Collie at 20". The Border Collie is easier and faster to run than the Afghans, "I would say that it is actually easier to run the BC than the small fast 8" dog. The difficulty with Tigger is that he is almost as fast as the BCs, but because he is so small, he can change directions quicker," Kletke notes. "That's an advantage in calling him off an off-course, but is a big disadvantage in that he has more strides to go off-course in the first place."
Kletke's training tips for a small, fast dog include: "Don't step on them! They hate that. I have had to learn that Tigger doesn't really see me above the knees. When we're working closely, and he's driving to an obstacle, he can't see my hands, arms, or shoulders very well. He works a lot based on my leg and feet position."

His second tip: "Be patient with them. Those teeters are tough for a 5 lb dog. They need to have good approaches to A-frames to get speed. Also, don't assume that just because they are small, that they won't bail a contact," Kletke cautions. "Tigger will jump off pretty high above the yellow if allowed."

Kleke understands where people get the notion that little dogs aren't real dogs, "They see a little ball of fluff generally running much slower around the ring and think that it is some 'toy out there - pun intended! I've been told by trainers in the NW that I have to walk and run a course as if Tigger were a big dog. He and other little fast dogs actually take the same traps as bigger dogs would, and need to be run much like a big dog. As for being 'real' dogs, they can have the same drive, excitement, and enjoyment from agility as any other dog out there. If they still think that dogs like Tigger aren't real agility dogs, then how come he is the #2 dog of all breeds in AKC (based on double Qs and points for speed) for 2003? I think that the record of fast little dogs out there stands for itself."

Of course, winning the Nationals was a thrill for Kletke. "It didn't really sink in until just before the Animal Planet telecast. Watching Tigger and myself on the promo spots for the telecast made it all real. Messing up in the first round and having to come from behind was certainly more stressful. To have to win two rounds (challenge and finals) to win the championship was harder, but somehow it makes it even more special. There were a lot of good dogs there, and I feel very fortunate to be the winner this year. You never know what next year will bring, so I'm going to enjoy it now!"

Darlene and Friends. Photo: Lisa Croft-Elliott