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Is your dog in condition for competition

If you are thinking about or already competing with your dog, there are many factors to consider. Having your dog in optimal physical and mental condition should be at the top of the list says American Kathy Herzog.

Chris Zink (1992) describes the purpose of conditioning as two fold: maximising the function of the musculature and cardiovascular systems, and improving skills and co-ordination in order to prevent injury. She points out that the handler's efforts to condition the dog also serve to train for specific events, develop strength and endurance, improve timing, and release endorphins. You will find that conditioning exercises improve the relationship between you and your dog by carving out a regular time in the day where intensive, one-on-one interaction occurs, and where both parties learn to 'read' and understand the other better.

Before starting any exercise program, take a critical look at your dog. Consider his/her weight. Most athletic dogs are on the thin side compared to dogs who are showing in conformation, or who are pets. Look at his/her feet. The toenails should be kept short for safety and comfort. Finally, if your dog has many medical problems, consult with your vet before starting an exercise or agility program.

The following are ways to improve the condition of your agility dog so that he/she will be in the best shape possible when you finally are ready to go to a show.

Stretch out and cool down
Always remember to stretch your dog's muscles thoroughly before and after each work out. You can use food and a clicker to help with this, and some dogs will learn to stretch on cue. Make sure you dog's muscles are warm and limber before starting. After the work out, include a cool down period into your routine to give your dog's muscles a chance to get rid of any lactic acid build up, and to allow the heart and respiration rates to return to normal.

Road walking
As boring as it may sound, walking on lead is an excellent way to condition your agility dog. Walking at a brisk, even pace provides your dog with exercise that improves muscle tone and cardiovascular endurance. What seems to work best is to train your dog to 'walk on' in front of you at the end of the lead. Keep the pace as consistent as possible. You will want to 'potty' your dog before you begin your walk. Teach the dog that this is different from regular walks. This is work, and he/she is expected to trot steadily rather than sniffing and marking every telephone pole or blade of grass. Using a different lead/collar combination sometimes helps. Also verbal cues such as 'wanna do some work?' and telling the dog to 'walk on' when out there. Chris Zink uses a wooden dowel to keep her dogs trotting in front of her. Walks should vary in length and intensity, and handlers should watch carefully for signs of fatigue or over heating.

If your dog likes to swim, this is a wonderful way to provide a low impact, but very intensive, work out. Like walking on lead, taking your dog swimming as a conditioning exercise is different than taking your dog out for a play swim. First, you need to find a pool, pond or lake that is clean and free of hazards such as broken glass, etc. that both of you can wade in.

Next, you need a basic nylon dog harness and a Flexi retractable lead. With you dog on lead, wade into the water until the dog is slightly beyond his/her depth. Of course, if you have a giant breed, this may not be possible, but this is still a good work out. Start walking slowly parallel to the shore, offering your swimming dog quiet words of encouragement: good dog, great job. Observe your dog very carefully. They get pretty tired quickly. Swim your dog for short periods of time with frequent rest and play breaks. Use reasonable caution in very cold or rough water, and don't allow the dog to get chilled after a work out.

Runs in the woods
This activity is fun for both you and your dog, and something that you might already be doing. It is a less effective aerobic conditioner than either lead walking or swimming, but it does teach the dog to pay attention to what all four feet are doing, and be agile in negotiating all kinds of unexpected obstacles (logs, roots, stone walls, etc). These outings are usually enhanced if your dog can go with other dogs. You can use runs in the woods to practice recalls which are very useful in both agility and real life as well as sendaways, etc. Be creative. There are many things you can do outside, off lead that relate to agility.

Have fun and be safe
Most of us who do agility enjoy training our dogs. Remember when you engage in these conditioning exercises, or do agility, to practice moderation. Be vigilant about over-training, or pushing your dog further than he/she is ready to go. Signs of stress include excessive panting, and avoidant or apathetic behaviour. If you are conditioning your dog for competition, a good rule of thumb is at least 4-5 work outs per week. These can include agility and/or obedience practice, but at least two or three of them should include exercise that conditions the muscles and lungs. Consistency is key, as well as creative integration of training modalities. You will find that you and your dog work more effectively as a team, injuries will be prevented, and your dog will have more zest and enthusiasm for all that you ask if the dog is in good condition!

  • L. Caplan, & S. Clothier (1990), Agility Training Workbook, Flying Dog Press, Frenchtown, New Jersey (USA)
  • C. Zink (1992), Peak Performance: Coaching the Canine Athlete, Howell Book House, New York, New York (USA)
  • C. Zink & J. Daniels, J. (1996), Jumping from A to Z, Canine Sports Productions, Lutherville, Maryland (USA)

About the author...
Kathy Herzog
, a clinical psychologist by day, lives in south-eastern Massachusetts (USA). She was born in England (Cambridge) and has a sister who lives in Oxford so she visits frequently. Although she grew up in America, she has entertained thoughts of returning here to live, but the quarantine laws put her off since she has three Pembroke Welsh Corgis. In addition to Agility, she shows Keri, her Corgi bitch.

Cartoons from Lisa Mugridge. Article reprinted and anglicised from an agility newsletter.

Some Shared Experiences

From Lise Cote
I appreciated your article on conditioning dogs for agility, since this topic is rarely addressed in our American agility magazine, Clean Run. It seems, however, that the information offered was fairly predictable. How about some creative ways to condition dogs (and perhaps handlers too!)?

With my Scotties, for instance, if I haven't had time to walk them, or if it's pouring rain (which it often is here in Seattle) my husband and I play a recall game with them. One of us is upstairs, one downstairs, and the dogs get called or sent up and down, perhaps 10 times, or until they wear out. I feel that the stair running helps build up their hind quarters for the A-frame, as well as working out their hearts and lungs. I also use a walking-on-hind-legs trick (cue is tippy-toes) for rear-end muscle building.

What about jogging with your dog? This was an obvious activity not addressed in your article. I have read elsewhere that long jog/run sessions are not as effective in conditioning as walking. Walking with short sprints was supposed to be the best activity.

Warming up
My BC runs alongside my bicycle for a two mile run. I started her out slowly, and check her pads all the time. I also work with her leaping for bubbles in the air (kid bubbles) to strengthen her hind legs, since a lot of agility pounds the front end and shoulders. I do the bubbles after a 'chuckit'  warmup. She gets a two mile run on a paved trail and a walk a day.

The two mile run is fun, and I let her go the speed she wants. Lately, she is in really good shape, and wants to run full out the whole way, with a water stop and creek bath in the middle. Ha ha.
Sueellen Ebertz (18/10/01)

Re: Mountain Biking
I just came back from a mile of mountain biking on old logging trail with my cocker alongside me. We had never tried this before, and I am proud to say that as distraction training, it worked very well! We passed a deer, two other loose dogs, and a whole lot of chipmunks without incident! Cyrano was thrilled to see that he could run full out and I could actually keep up with him. We had a blast so I want to try this again, but I wanted to know if anyone has any words of wisdom/caution regarding what to do/not do using such an activity as road work.
Deb Locke & Cyrano ('bout time you got fast!)

Re: Beware of hard surfaces
Don't ride on the asphalt except VERY short distances to get to somewhere will wear the dogs' paws raw and right now the pavement is too hot even at 8 pm.

I regularly train both of my agility boys on the Springer. We ride on a bird preserve bike and hike trail near my home. Since I have a Border Collie and a Standard Eskie, I ride with BOTH of them together for miles. I have just begun taking my bike with me to shows.

This past weekend I got up at 5 am both Saturday and Sunday and rode my BC for at least five miles to take the edge off of his energy level. I do believe it worked. He got two titles this weekend.

Anyway biking is an EXCELLENT training for conditioning. Just watch the paws and stay on the dirt or grass. With Borders, the jogging just wasn't cutting it. He laughed at my speed.
Terry Woods (USA)

Re: Bones and joints
I think any running on dirt or grass is fine if the dog is built up gradually for distance.

Hard surfaces, on the other hand...

I always want to stop people who jog their dogs on hard pavement mile after mile while running or biking and ask them if they realize that they are pounding the dogs bones and joints. If I were to ask them and they were to answer (other than 'mind your own business, it's my dog!') they'd probably rationalize and deny that it's harmful. I look at this practice as something that is for the owner's convenience - exercise the dog while exercising themselves, thus saving time. The dog may be gaining in muscle development and aerobic capacity, but at what cost to structural soundness??????? OUCH!!!!!!!!!!
Melanie Mecca (USA)

Re: Road damage to pads
 I know what you mean about the damage that can be done to pads. I had told my husband not to have one of my dogs out a couple of months ago. Maverick likes to chase his RC car. He was only out for five minutes I was told around 6:30 pm. When I returned home he could not walk. He had second and third degree burns on all four paws. That has put us back two months of training. Maverick really suffered with that injury. Now his feet are really sensitive even when I do paw care.
Lisa Fair (USA)


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