Your Dog is an Elite Athlete

Source: Written by Petra Ford in the April issue of Front & FInish, LLC
Petra Ford Front & Finish Author Page

I used to think that throwing a ball, letting my dogs run off leash in the woods and training my dogs was “exercise”. In actuality, these activities cause wear and tear on dogs’ muscles, tendons and joints. With performance clients my goal is to instill one concept: our dogs are elite athletes. This simple shift in mindset helps us understand the importance of a conditioning program.  Athletes are mindfully conditioned, they warm-up, cool down, stretch, and cross train. Every athlete, regardless of their sport, requires strong core muscles. A personalized conditioning program improves performance and minimizes the risk of injury.

In obedience we are asking our dogs to perform repetitive activities (broad jump land and turn; turn and sit for directed jumping; tight spin back when retrieving; heeling, etc.) that often causes overuse injuries. I often treat dogs with a soft tissue injury that was likely caused by an event not related to training. It was not a serious injury and typically goes unnoticed.  But when we train and trial our dogs we aggravate the injury. With a solid fitness base, a good warm-up and the owner’s vigilant eye many injuries can be prevented or minimized. You and your canine athlete can quickly return to the sport you love to play together.  The following will get you started on your journey towards creating an elite canine athlete.

Benefits of Conditioning

Physically conditioned dogs perform better in their sport, are less likely to get injured and have improved recovery time.  If they do sustain an injury, the injury is less severe and the recovery is quicker.  Exercise not related to their sport is psychologically healthy for dogs.   Conditioning allows dogs to have a lengthier career.  This is especially significant considering that dogs are never with us long enough.

When preparing an exercise program, you must take your dog’s structure and any physical limitations into consideration.  Conditioning programs must be tailored to meet an individual dog’s specific needs.   Before you begin, make sure your veterinarian clears your dog for a conditioning program.   If at all possible, consult with a certified rehabilitation practitioner to develop a program that fits your individual dog’s needs and to establish a baseline.  I currently own three dogs that differ in age, structure, and sports they participate in.  Each dog has a different conditioning program.

Structure for Function

I am not referring to structure for the breed ring.  I evaluate how a dog’s structure impacts their ability to perform.  Where a dog is structurally weak is quite often the first place they break down. This is important information.  By identifying and strengthening areas of weakness you can prevent injury.  A number of my own dogs have had poor structure.  Knowing this I developed conditioning plans that addressed their individual weaknesses.  As a result my dogs are able to perform at a high level for many years.  A consultation with a certified rehabilitation practitioner is a great way to analyze your dog’s structure as it relates to function. 

Early Identification

Early identification of a musculoskeletal or an orthopedic injury decreases recovery time.  It is very common for clients to bring me their dogs when there is an obvious lameness.  As the evaluation moves along we realize there were earlier signs that the client didn’t recognize. 

Make it a habit to watch your dog(s) move.  Observe how and when they like to stretch; what they look like when they are standing, playing, walking, trotting, running; how they move when they are relaxed, excited; how they shake, etc.  It is especially important to watch them when they are training and competing.  These observations provide valuable information that can help you recognize when your dog is uncomfortable and allow you to intervene before the dog is truly injured.  When rehabilitating a dog I will ask the owner if the way their dog stands or moves that day is “normal”.  Often people don’t know.  They haven’t observed their dog in that way.  Observing your dog should become a habit. 

When a dog exhibits a change in behavior while training or trialing we are quick to blame it on the dog.  He should know this behavior!  They are blowing me off!   It is quite possible that this is a training issue.  But I strongly encourage you to clear any physical problems first.  I have many clients who bring me their dogs based on a change in behavior.  More often than not the dog does have a physical problem.  Imagine correcting your dog in training when they are physically uncomfortable.  If the injury is not identified and the training continues, it will only get worse and take longer to heal.   Choose to err on the side of the dog.  The following are red flags:

  • ticking or knocking bars, change in jump style, runs around jump, refuses to jump, directed jumping takes jump on one side but not the other;
  • dropping head while heeling, not driving when heeling, pacing, lagging;
  • slow sits, sloppy sits, sitting on one hip, one hind leg sticking out, breaking a sit stay, changing hips or movement during sit and/or down stay;
  • slow drop, not dropping or avoiding the drop, not dropping all the way;
  • slow or loopy turn and sit on go outs, slow or loopy turn when retrieving;
  • subtle hitch in the gait when working and/or when they first get up, but then it goes away;
  • dog is not doing something in life that it used to do:  jumping in/out of car, couch, playing with other dog in house.

More often than not the dog does have a physical problem. Your dog WILL work for you even if they are sore or uncomfortable.  By the time they are lame or refuse to work, they are seriously injured (and are typically off from training and trialing for many months).  Dogs rarely cry out or restrict activity when they are sore. 

Weight Management

Weight management is a must for working dogs.  Extra weight puts unnecessary stress on the cardiovascular system, as well as on bones and joints precipitating arthritis.   Ribs should be visible and easily palpable.  When looking from above, there should be a distinct tapering at the waist. 

Minimize Risk Factors in Daily Life:

By avoiding high-risk activities, many injuries can be prevented.  Minimize (even better, don’t allow) rough physical play between dogs.  Discourage fence running and chasing squirrels and other wildlife.  If your dog lives to retrieve (i.e. balls, frisbees, sticks, etc.) make sure the object has stopped moving before you release your dog to retrieve it.   Sliding on floors, racing up and down stairs, jumping on/off furniture and/or decks, all add unnecessary stress to muscles and joints.

Be mindful of footing when training and trialing.  Do your best to avoid slippery and/or wet surfaces.   I set my jump heights low and only raise them to full height 10-14 days before a trial.  I manage repetition within a training session to minimize repetitive stress.   If my dog trials for several days in a building with concrete floors covered only by a thin mat I give my dog several days off to recover from the pounding.

Rest!

It is well documented that (a) all athletes require dedicated “time off” during the season and (b) after an athlete recovers from an injury and returns to their sport, they often perform better than before they were hurt.  Why? Their body had forced time off to rest, recover and repair.   Often the dog was sore and uncomfortable for quite some time before their injury progressed enough that it was identified. 

What do I mean by “time off”?  The dog has complete rest.  No training, trialing or conditioning.  This is always difficult for the dog and handler. But it is critical.  The dog must rest both physically and mentally.  I recommend two weeks to a month of rest several times a year.  Many people fear their dog’s skills will decline with complete rest.  In truth, the opposite is true.  The dog’s skills actually improve due to latent learning.  Mentally and physically they will return to work refreshed and energized.  I also strongly advocate that performance dogs have one or two days off per week.  This gives their body time to recover from training, playing and conditioning exercises.  Think of how you would feel if you worked out seven days a week.  Bodies actually become stronger by rebuilding on rest days.

Let’s Get Started! Aerobic Base

This is the cornerstone of all conditioning programs.  Aerobic workouts are low intensity at a consistent pace over a length of time.   Leash walking tops the list.  Yes, that’s right leash walking is a great conditioning exercise!  However, it is not a leisurely stroll with lots of stops along the way to sniff the roses (or the fire hydrant).   A power walk three times a week for at least 20 minutes and up to 60 minutes is a great place to start.  I generally recommend 15-minute walks when first starting a program.  Once this is a comfortable distance for you and your dog, add 5 minutes.  My clients start with walks that have no inclines. After several months of walking on flat surfaces I add hills 1-2 times a week.  With hill workouts we again start at 15-minutes and build up slowly over time. 

Other Forms of Aerobic Exercise Include:

  • Treadmill
    Initially, have dogs walk at a comfortable pace for 5 minutes.  Slowly build from there adding no more than 5 minutes every two weeks.  No more than 20-30 minutes per session and no more than 2-3 sessions per week.   If your treadmill has the option to add an incline I recommend alternating flat with incline workouts.   Speeds that result in brisk walking or slow jogging are best.  Anything faster adds unnecessary force through the joints.
  • Swimming
    Swimming continuously (NOT water retrieves-these fall under the category of Strength Training) for 10-15 minutes provides an overall cardiovascular workout.  When swimming dogs are using primarily their front end.  So the hind end is not getting the same workout as the front end.
  • Underwater Treadmill
    If you have access to an underwater treadmill this is a terrific choice.  The water absorbs all of the impact which protects a dog’s joints.  The resistance of the water targets all four legs equally.  We can control the height and speed of the water to individualize the program.

These activities strengthen not only the cardiovascular system, but also tendons and ligaments that are constantly stressed during training and competition.  It is highly recommended to spend 2 to 3 months building an aerobic base before adding strength training (and trialing).

In future articles I will address additional components of a well-rounded conditioning program including:  proper warm-up and cool down, stretching, core strengthening, and sports specific strengthening.

Your teammate is an elite athlete.  With a well thought out, individualized exercise regimen your dog will have a competitive edge.   More importantly, it often increases a dog’s longevity not only with their performance career, but also in their retirement.