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Cross Training and Conditioning the Canine Athlete

Help your dog get fit! Article and photos by Melanie Behrens.

Maintaining the fitness of our canine athletes has only somewhat recently begun to get the attention it should have been getting from those of us who ask our dogs to perform athletic and competitive sports. In years past, at trials people would get their dogs out of the crate, pop the dog over a practice jump a few times and then go in the ring. This is thankfully changing, although sometimes it seems to be a slow change. People are realizing the need to physically prepare our dogs for competitive sports, and are interested in finding ways to achieve and maintain that conditioning. And more and more people are making sure to properly warm up and cool down their dogs before and after runs, and are performing stretches as well.

You should strive to have an organized, regular cross-training fitness program for your dog. A weekly plan would ideally include walking, swimming, sport specific training and specific muscle building and balance work. These activities should be part of a regular program of general fitness training for all dogs, including small dogs. Consider your agility class, lessons or home training to be your sports specific work. Then fill in the other days with other activities. Hiking and walking with your dogs, on or off leash, is very beneficial for overall conditioning of our canine athletes and should be part of every dog's conditioning routine. Many people try to do either two miles per day or they do longer hikes a few days per week adding up to 10-20 miles per week. You can add in hill work and/or sprints during your walks for even more conditioning benefit for both you and your dog. Hill work will strengthen the rear limb muscles, and sprints simulate what a dog does in an agility run. Throwing a ball up a hill and having your dog chase after it can be a way of working the rear even more on hills. You can also add some balance work by having your dog jump up and walk on logs and by sending them around trees and rocks while hiking off leash. Use your imagination, but make it safe.

Swimming, while not a weight bearing exercise, will improve cardiovascular fitness, and most dogs love it. Try to find a clean pond, stream, river or beach near you that dogs are allowed to use and swim them at least once or twice a week, if possible. Aim for 15 minutes of actual swimming time, not including running and jumping. Be very aware of how much water your dog may be taking in to avoid water intoxication, and also be sure that the water is clean and safe for the dogs. 

Next we come to exercises specific for core strengthening and balance work. There is a Facebook group devoted to this goal that is monitored by several physical and rehabilitation fitness professionals. It's called Canine Conditioning and Body Awareness Exercises, and is worth joining by those interested in this subject. Another good source of information for those who have some exercise equipment (and even for those who do not) are some of the online courses that are available on the topic of conditioning. Daisy Peel's Online Classroom (classes taught by Bobbie Lyons) and Denise Fenzi Dog Sports Academy (classes taught by Debbie Gross Saunders) are two good choices. 

Willin' swims for fitness.

However, while much of the focus of these sources is on using fitness equipment such as exercise balls and treadmills for conditioning, there are many ways to adapt those exercises using everyday stuff that is available to all. Safety needs to be considered at all times, especially when adapting objects and equipment not specifically designed for physiotherapy, but as long as each adaptation is carefully considered, they can be good options. Perch work can be done on objects other than equipment made for that purpose, such as firewood, stumps, walls, etcetera. Any unstable surface can be used to challenge balance and improve proprioception, such as sand, egg crate foam and the like. A wobble board can be very simply fashioned from a board with some sort of non-slip material attached on top and a small ball in a sock stapled to the bottom of the boar. Exercises such as sit-ups, squats, diagonal leg lifts and so on can be done using these things rather than on exercise equipment specifically made for this purpose. Cavaletti (very low jumps) grids can be made from regular jumps or fashioned from very basic materials without purchasing a specific kit at significant cost. Cones can be purchased very cheaply. Cut holes in them at different heights and buy some 1" PVC piping cut into the lengths you want for poles. For small dogs, you can even use bent soda cans and place the bars on them. The height of the bar should be no more than hock height of the dog and spacing generally the height of the dog at the withers. Bending work can be done using trees, cones or poles in the ground. Active stretches can be performed by the dog during trick training and practicing. Sit ups, sits to downs, sits to stands, sitting pretty, leg lifting both diagonal and same side and backing up are all good exercises that can be trained as tricks.

Zim is balancing on a stump to increase his fitness.

Stretching should also be a part of your dog's daily routine and should always be done while the muscles are warm, meaning after a warm-up activity such as walking. This gives you a good opportunity to go over your dog thoroughly and detect any sensitivities or pain reactions that might be found during the range-of-motion stretching exercises. Massage is also part of the program that we should include in caring for our dogs.

Not everyone is going to have swimming available to them at home, and swimming areas may have to be searched out, but hiking places certainly can be found no matter where you live. With a little bit of ingenuity, ways to keep your dog conditioned can be found. The benefits of doing so will be obvious in a very short time in terms of strength, speed and overall endurance, even for an average weekend of agility. And when dogs have the physical endurance for agility, their mental acuity will also be sharper and they will be more resistant to the stresses of trial environments.

May is National Physical Fitness and Sports month, but fitness is important all year long!

Melanie Behrens, who has competed in agility since 1998, is a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Practitioner currently practicing in New Windsor, New York, at Flannery Animal Hospital. She is also a dog trainer/agility instructor, USDAA agility judge and Licensed Veterinary Technician. Melanie currently lives in Pleasant Valley, New York, with her husband and three Border Collies Willin' (13), Elf (8) and Zim (2), all of whom have numerous agility titles in USDAA and AKC agility.


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