By Jim Hutchins
I begin training obedience exercises when the pup is about 10-12 week old, although teaching the come command starts as soon as they can walk around. For heeling, I first get them accustomed to a choke collar (nylon for everyday use, chain for obedience work) by walking them on leash in the back yard.
When they accept this collar, I spend about 5 minutes a day instilling the heel command, using gentle "checks" on the leash, changing direction frequently. Heeling practice continues on a daily basis (7 days/week, every week that Iím home), and continues up through the UDX stage.
I also teach them the sit, down, stand, and stay commands, starting at the same time, spending no more than 10 minutes for a training session. Every session is upbeat and ends on a play segment (ball, tugging, or just plain horsing around).
After theyíve got the basics of sit and stay, I begin teaching the come command, on leash for several weeks. After this, when the weather permits (we have mild winters in Cincinnati), we practice the come command outside with a flexi-lead. After several weeks of this, I will venture to an off-lead recall, but only in a confined area such as a ring at the dog club or in my fenced in pool.
By about 12 weeks, I try to enroll in one of the many puppy kindergarten classes our training club offers. This is the second stage of training, practicing the commands they know in a distractive environment. At about we weeks, I also begin introducing my puppy to agility obstacles. I create very low jumps (4-5 inches high) out of sticks and blocks in my basement, make tunnels behind furniture in the basement, teaching them to jump up on an old couch, etc. I also have a set of weave poles that I can bring inside and put homemade channels on (to guide them through the proper poles). After several weeks of guiding them through the weaves, on leash, practice begins on going through the weaves off lead.
For agility, the emphasis is on fun, with treats or a ball (depending on the specific motivator for each dog) at the exit of a tunnel or a jump or a weave. Iíve also made myself a teeter-totter and a dog walk for the back yard, and I slowly, and cautiously, introduce them to each of these obstacles. When they are about 6 months old, I introduce them to the agility equipment at our club, setting the jump height to about 8 inches.
Gradually, by time they are 9 months old, Iíve raised the jump height to full height (20-24 inches). This prepares them for the agility ring by the time they are 12 months old. This is the earliest they can be shown in AKC agility. My Annie earned her first Novice Agility leg on her first birthday.
Getting back to obedience, when the pup is fairly consistent in all the novice exercises, which with Annie was about 9 months, I introduce the dumbbell, using the method outlined by Volhard and Fisher in their book. This is the start of the retrieve commands (dumbbell, gloves, and articles).
Annie got the gist of the dumbbell retrieve in about 6 weeks. This leads naturally into the glove retrieve and the article retrieve.
I waited on the drop on recall until Annie had her CD, at 15 months. After she got her CD, in one weekend with scores of 193, 186, and 195, we immediately began working all the Open exercises. In just short of one month later, she earned her first CDX leg. Having also started training all the Utility exercises at the same time as the Open exercises, we were immediately ready for the Utility ring when she finished her CDX, 5 months after getting her CD.
This proved to be a little too rapid for Annie, as she NQíd in her first 6 Utility ring tries. However, I think the Utility ring experience was beneficial, as well as the additional experience in the Open ring, which I entered at the same time, preparing for the UDX journey.
As you can see, I believe in getting the Boxer into the ring as early as I can, in each ring. My philosophy is to get to the UDX level at an early age so we can enjoy more of the later years in the ring, proofing and polishing.
For the article discrimination, I teach a simple retrieve of one article, both metal and leather, then go to two, and let the dog figure out the right one.
Iíll point out the one that Iíve rubbed with my hotdog scented hands, point it out, have them retrieve it, and over a few days, they learn what is expected. Over the next several weeks, I build up the number of articles, first with all of one kind, and then with mixtures. In about 2 months, Annie got the gist of this exercise.
Directed jumping is best taught in two parts, the go-out and the jump. From the agility training, the jumping follows naturally, first standing near the jump, and gradually moving away. For the go-out, I use a piece of carpet, with a treat on it, at one end of my basement, as the initial training step.
After 4-5 weeks, we then go outside or to the club, at the same time gradually reducing the size of the carpet square. Every so often, I omit the carpet. Recently, Iíve started using a tennis ball as a target. Rarely do I not have a target in practice with Annie, but with my more seasoned Suzi (nine-years-old); I donít need a target.
I occasionally practice stays on our bed, with at least 2 dogs being there. Since we allow one dog to sleep with us (on a rotating basis), this is a most compelling place to break a long sit. I have a mirror reflection to watch them, so I can make a quick correction when necessaryó which hasnít presented itself in over a year.
Of course, weekly sit/down stays at the club, with distractions, is a ritual.
Regarding jumping, Iíve never felt that the boxer is in danger of injuring their fronts at 9 months. I know the "conventional" wisdom of breeders (who in mho are not boxer performance people) is to wait until they are 18 months old, but I think that applies to breeds such as Goldens, Labs and other large breeds that have front structure problems. Just watch a boxer in play and see how high it jumps! My twelve-year-old still jumps 20 inches in the air occasionally.