Building the Puppy Obstacle Run
A lot of my pups go for Search & Rescue, and I try to prepare them well to start training as soon as they leave. My Search & Rescue friend, Janet, sent me the following link and urged me to create an obstacle run for my litters: https://www.facebook.com/FormaUtilityDogs/videos/471621010157410/UzpfSTEzMDkzNDI5MDQ6MTAyMTcwOTA5MDkxNjc0MTg/),
The idea is to help the pups learn how to approach obstacles and consider how to safely and efficiently get past them, THINK about how to use their bodies and where their feet are rather than blunder over or through things. Many adult dogs don’t know where to safely place their feet in rough terrain, so learning these things now can keep the pups from getting hurt unnecessarily when they are working, whether that is searching for lost people, competing in agility, or anything else.
I felt, in that video Janet sent, that the pups were being set up to get hurt. Those Malinois pups were three to four months old, which is a time of RAPID growth. Whenever puppies are in growth spurts, their ligaments and tendons struggle to keep pace with the growth of their bones and are often stretched to the max. Mad scrambles like those pups are doing make me cringe and worry about shoulder injuries or ligament strains. I decided to start with that general idea but concentrate more on getting them to thoughtfully approach each obstacle rather than race each other.
I recruited my local friends to collect things such as gallon milk jugs (with lids), two-liter pop bottles (with lids) and anything else that might be good to create different sections in the obstacle run that pups must wade through, go under or go over. And I began looking around my place for things I had saved in case a need arose.
The run has one leg (east-west) that is about 100’ long and uses the agility field fence for one side, then corners and has a second leg (north-south) that goes another 60’ or so along my eastern boundary fence. The first leg is relatively level and that’s where I’ll put the dog walk and a-frame among other things; the second leg heads downhill so we’ll put things there that will make the puppies collect (stop their all-out run to slowly go through something), such as a section with two-liter bottles to wade through.
A friend gave me an old agility tunnel to use.
I managed to purchase a small A-frame and dogwalk that had been used in powder puff agility trials (for toy dogs) years ago. Their small size will be perfect for my puppies and I’ll be able to set the dogwalk just inches off the ground so they’re safe for the pups. Put as low as possible, the A-frame will be a challenge for the pups to climb up and over – and the footing would be totally new to them. I have the agility footing we now use on all my ramps and on the puppy obstacle course in their yard, but these had the old footing – sand and tiny pebbles glued onto the contact equipment and then painted over.
I decided my old agility gates (NADAC no longer uses them in competition) will work great to channel the pups onto each obstacle. I also found some pieces of plywood tall enough to block the pups but short enough for us to easily step over as we accompanied the pups over the contact obstacles (A-frame and dogwalk).
I also had a couple of pvc frames I had used to teach my dogs the contacts years ago; standing up they will work to hang jugs and other things on for the pups to push through. I had to replace the sprinkler hoses on all my flower beds this spring and I thought, cut into lengths, they would work great to hang in strips to form a moving curtain the pups have to push through.
I discovered some old garden hoses I had stored just in case I ever had a use for them. Duct tape would control leaks from dog teeth just so long, so I had set aside the (unintended) soaker hoses in case I needed one. I decided these old hoses, rolled up, would be great obstacles to teach the pups where to put their feet – do I step over the hose into the empty space in the middle or is there any way to go around?
I conferred with the people at Farmer’s CoOp and Knecht Lumber about the best materials to use to fence the obstacle run. Hog panels were the best fencing because they don’t need much support nor must they be stretched to make a neat fence. They also have small holes for the bottom two feet of the panel so the puppies couldn’t squeeze out; larger holes towards the top make it easy for humans to stick an arm through to adjust something or help a pup. And if worse comes to worse, we can climb over the top. The panels are tall enough to contain the pups but short enough that we can easily lift the pups over the end one to start the obstacle run. Farmer’s CoOp even delivered the hog panels. Hurrah!
Fence posts were another consideration. Most of my two acres was part of an auto race track in the 40’s and 50’s, which means where there aren’t head-sized rocks, there is gravel. Later, it was turned into a dry-land grass and alfalfa hay field, both of which will grow in rocks and merely hide them. Every spring, rocks push upwards through the surface, complicating mowing. Fencing has always been a nightmare, and the section where I was going to put the obstacle run was the rockiest part of my place. After a lot of consultation, the guys and I decided that concrete rebar posts would work fine – they’re only ½” in diameter so they might slip between gravel or rock pretty easily. Even a small piece of gravel can stop a post driver, so this was a big consideration. The rebar comes in 20’ lengths. We decided 40” was plenty long a post for the hog panels, so we could get 6 posts per length of rebar – and Knecht Lumber had a cutter that could handle the ½” rebar.
I had Knecht cut one length of rebar right then and took it with me. As soon as the hog panels were delivered, I put three panels up and left them to see if the rebar would hold them well in wind and rain. The rebar went into the ground nicely with my post driver. That was the 5th of May, shortly before we had a big windstorm with heavy rain. That 48’ section stood nearly 6 weeks before I began the run, and it was still nice and straight and tight. Our idea worked.
Due to the pandemic, my Search & Rescue friends decided they’d better not come to build the obstacle run. I was really disappointed. They are super creative and great fun to be around, plus I am always eager to learn more of what they look for in a dog and what I can do to help my pups do well for them. I began thinking how I could create the run by myself. I was beginning to feel pressured since the temperament tests were June 23rd and 24th, and it was already June. And hot. Thankfully, other friends came to the rescue.
Sunday, 6/15/20: A cool front moved in during the night and it was quite pleasant this morning. Linda and Claudia came at 8:30 to help me put the puppy obstacle run together. After we hauled everything back to the area with the riding mower and cart, we brought the puppies out. We had puppies playing, we had puppies wanting attention, we had puppies following GloryToo as she kept coming to check on each of us. We had great fun!
Claudia and Linda worked on creating a “curtain” of strips of the sprinkler hoses and some milk jugs – something that the pups would have to push their way through (similar to what is used with horses at courage clinics, but of course downscaled a lot). While they did that (with supervision from the puppies), I was setting up the contact equipment on the most level ground.
Since the boundary fence to my agility field is 6’ high and stable, I planned to have the dogwalk against it so the pups couldn’t possibly fall off. I had left out of consideration the old hay grass and alfalfa that grows along the fence. The pups showed me that the dogwalk wasn’t going to work against the fence because I couldn’t push the dog walk board tightly against the fence due to the grass: two different pups decided it was great fun to squeeze their way off into a nice little niche (that had looked too me like it was too small) between the walk and fence for a nap in the shade under the dogwalk. So I redid the dogwalk, putting it in the center of the obstacle run and using my old agility gates to create barriers on each side to keep the pups on the walk.
In 3.5 hours, we got the long leg of the obstacle run totally done and were well started on the second leg. And it still wasn’t 80 degrees, so we enjoyed our work!! I’m so grateful to have had help with the obstacle run.
Monday, 6/15/20: Rooting around in a shed, I found a Leaf Loader Lawn Cleanup Tool that was supposed to have made it easy to bag raked leaves. You raked the leaves onto it and it turned into a funnel and the leaves easily slid into your lawn/leaf bag. Right. All it ever did was refuse to form a funnel and then suddenly pop open, scattering leaves everywhere so I had to rake again. It was more trouble that it was worth but still too expensive just to throw out, so I set it aside “in case I ever needed it.” I remembered how it tended to be always moving and never laid flat, and thought it might make a great “unstable surface” object for the obstacle run, so I put it between the first “curtain” and the dogwalk.
I set up the tunnel at the corner where the two legs of the obstacle run meet. Right now it is straight and only about 6’ long, but once they will run through that, I’ll lengthen it and eventually have it curve around the corner. Most dogs new to tunnels won’t go through them if they can’t see an opening at the end, so to make the tunnel easy to learn, I start with it short and straight and then slowly lengthen it and curve the tunnel to allow them to run through happily even if they can’t see the whole opening. Once they know the tunnel, it won’t bother them to go in on faith that there IS an opening out of sight.
Sunday when we set up the fence, we left a space between the fence panels at the corner, because we need an opening where the big dogs can get in to retrieve balls that bounce into the run AND for us to get in to help the pups, especially at first, with the A-frame and dog walk. One of the agility gates works perfectly to allow us access and also a way close off the opening when the puppies are running.
My goddaughter, Becka, and her two kids – son Lucien, 7, and stepdaughter Allison, 11, came Monday night to help work on the obstacle run. With Becka helping hold the 16’ fence panels as I figured out where to pound the posts, it sure went faster than with me doing it by myself.
I had the kids hunt for smooth rocks and of course we found lots. Over the last 40 years, as I’ve planted trees and created flowerbeds, I’ve created piles of rocks I dug out of the ground as I planted; the only problem tonight was finding them in the tall grass. But we were successful and found enough to make a nice pile for the pups to navigate.
Tuesday, 6/16/20: The weather continues to be cool, great for working on the obstacle run. What a relief.
Linda stopped by this morning to see what I did on the obstacle run yesterday. She was inspired to head to the Dollar Store and returned a bit later with a box of small containers AND 11 small footballs. Those definitely livened up that walk-through-bottles area!
I finished putting up all the fence. I had found three forms from bee boxes left over from years ago when a friend had bees on my place. They form open squares about 5” high and fit perfectly in a line across the run, a good exercise for the pups to carefully step in and out. I also took a variety of lengths and thicknesses of boards and placed them haphazardly so the pups have to pick their way over them.
I found a nice piece of 2” diameter pvc pipe just long enough to go across the run. I strung a rope through it, hanging it several inches off the ground so the puppies have a choice to either go over it or else push their way under.
At the end of that leg, I put the last set of hanging jugs. This one was a “double,” with jugs at two different heights so it was hard to push through.
Thursday, 6/18/20: Pat, who is getting Mr. Blue, came today. We grabbed some salmon treats (in case we needed lures to get the pups to try the a-frame and dogwalk) and led the pups out to the obstacle run. We didn’t have any luck putting them into the east end of the run – when Pat headed down to the gate in the corner so as to be able to help them, all followed. So we both walked down there and let the pups in at the corner. They immediately headed for the tunnel and ran through it, then settled down inside although the day wasn’t hot so that they needed shade. They just thought it was a fun place. We did the downhill (heading north) leg first because it had the easiest obstacles.
Miss Yellow had a very tough time figuring out the curtain with the trays on each side. She cried a lot as she sat in one of the trays. Eventually she figured it out.
Next was a pile of scattered boards, then another curtain of BIG jugs. Once through that, they had to go over an old beat-up plastic kiddie pool and next over a pile of rocks. After that they waded through a section of small bottles and footballs, pick their way through the bee forms, jump over a length of pvc pipe hung about 3” above the ground, and finally through a double curtain of big jugs. Miss Pink and Mr. Blue grabbed footballs and tried to lie down and just chew on them. We finally got them to carry the footballs through more obstacles.
We then called them back up that leg, and they raced through it even though this time it was uphill going. All sure looked like they had learned they could push through the jugs – no one got hung up in the freezer trays this time. Then we navigated the tunnel and began the east-west leg of the run, heading west.
First they had to learn the A-frame. We were impressed that they figured it out pretty quickly, even though it was quite a climb. In fact, they liked it so much that several turned around at the top and went back down the east side, then turned around and went back up and came down the west side. So much for worrying that it was too steep for them! Once we got them on the ground, they faced the coiled and piled garden hoses, and had no problem picking their way through them.
That took them to the dogwalk, which I also thought might pose a problem. To keep them safe and not allow them to fall or jump off the edge (bad habit for potential agility dogs!), I had put agility gates along each side. It actually looked more like a tunnel that was open at the top than a dogwalk, and it was only about 8” wide, possibly claustrophobic for the pups. It will definitely get them used to tight places!!!!! They hesitated at the entrance then pretty much trotted the length of the dogwalk. What good puppies! On this obstacle, too, they had so much fun that they turned around and went back. We finally got them all on the west side of it, where they encountered the Leaf Loader Lawn Cleanup Tool, which they thought was great fun to walk across and make change positions almost like a teeter. I thought for a moment they would use it for a trampoline, jumping up and down on it, but they just enjoyed moving here and there to make it wave beneath them.
Last was another curtain, this time of sections of sprinkler hose and milk jugs. They were done! Instead of resting on their laurels, they reversed and gaily raced over the leaf loader, dogwalk, hoses and up and over the A-frame to collapse in the tunnel. We decided that was plenty of exercise and finally convinced them to come through the corner gate and head to the house.
Linda and Claudia, who had helped build the obstacle run on Sunday, came tonight to help put the pups through it. All of us had a great time. The puppies took every obstacle at speed. The only problem was the footballs in the wade-through-bottles area. Because most of the pups stopped, and grabbed a football and plopped down to chew on it or play tug for it, we decided to remove those and look for more small plastic bottles to take their place.
Saturday, 6/20/20: I decided what to do with the tunnel in the puppy obstacle run, so this morning during ball times I headed back out to work. One end of the tunnel absolutely refuses to stand up. Tunnel bags (what we usually put on the ends and sometimes middles of tunnels to hold them in place) make it worse. I was unable to follow my original plan, which was to gradually stretch out the tunnel and eventually curve it, so that at the end it arced around the corner of the obstacle run. Instead, I was going to have to stretch the tunnel totally out and brace it up. I decided the only thing to do was puncture the tunnel fabric close to a metal rib, run a wire around the rib, and tie it to the fence.
During Lively’s ball session I got most of that done. Then it was GloryToo’s and the pups’ turn. The day was heating up and the pups thought the shade in the tunnel was fantastic. It was probably cool, too, with the tunnel fabric holding out the heat of the sun. Every time I stretched the end of the tunnel to secure it to the fence, at least one pup decided right that second to plop down right there. Finally, after many tries, I got them far enough in the tunnel AND STAYING, that I could work on the end. Then I barricaded from the tunnel to the outer fence so that the pups had to navigate the tunnel when they ran the course.
My last project was to cut one of the hog panels in half and place it at the east edge of the run to help create a little “corral” where I could hold the puppies and then go to the corner and call them. I loosely wired two panel pieces so they would fold back against the outer run fence for storage, but would open and make the corral as needed.
The only thing we might need to do is cut some off a couple of fence panels to make it easier for us to access some of the obstacles.