Canine Conditioning for Sports

08.19.2020

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Starting December 2023

Here’s a thought…How well conditioned is your dog for the sports you play? Many dogs train in multiple sports at the same time. Some dogs only train in one specific sport. Other dogs may have “seasons” depending on the sports they play. During the training process for all of these sports there is some conditioning that occurs naturally, but is it enough? Do you know what your dog needs for optimal performance? Do you need to build endurance, explosiveness, or strength? How do you know what will help your dog the most?

In order to safely participate in most sports, dogs need to be physically sound and strong. However, some sports require more than just strength. To help identify what will be most beneficial for the sports you and your dog play, let’s break the sports down into two categories. Endurance Sports and Plyometric Sports.

Endurance Sports

Dictionary.com defines endurance as “denoting or relating to a race or other sporting event that takes place over a long distance or otherwise demands great physical stamina.” I would consider any sport in which your dog is in the competition ring, on average, more than 2 minutes an Endurance Sport. Think about how often your dog is up, moving around throughout the day. Typically our dogs laying around waiting for something exciting to happen. Rarely do my dogs run around the house on their own.

Here’s a list of sports that could be considered Endurance (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Obedience
  • Rally
  • Field/Hunt Tests
  • Herding
  • Water Work
  • Conformation
  • Lure Coursing
  • Scent Sports
  • Canicross
  • Mushing

For dogs that are competing in Endurance Sports, your dog should be able to be physically active for at least twice as long as they will need for competition. For example, in PWD Water Work dogs have to swim anywhere from 3 minutes to 15 minutes depending on the level they are competing. It is very common for novice levels of all dog sports to take less time than the more advanced levels. The natural progression of difficulty includes more duration. Not only will dogs need to increase the amount of time they can focus on a task, they also need to increase their physical stamina as well. If a dog runs low on stamina during competition, he or she will have a much harder time focusing on the tasks at paw.

While training a dog to heel, herd, or do water work will naturally include some stamina. It’s a great idea to add more endurance training outside of the sport. Hiking, walking, using a land or water treadmill, or taking your dog swimming are all great options to build stamina.

Plyometric Sports

Plyometrics, or plyos for short, is also known as “jump training.” This training focuses on training muscles to move from extension to contraction in a rapid or “explosive” manner. Because of the forces exerted and strength needed to do plyometrics, it cannot be maintained for long periods of time safely. Dogs do not typically do heavy plyo movements on their own. In my house, the little Wrecking Ball occasionally flings herself off of the couch onto Trek’s head, but it’s not something that happens over and over again.

Here’s a list of sports that could be considered Plyometric (this is not an exhaustive list):

  • Agility
  • Fast CAT
  • Dock Diving
  • Weight Pulling (although endurance is also needed)
  • Disc Dog
  • Flyball

These sports, in many ways, are more physically demanding than endurance sports. Dogs who are involved in these sports MUST be physically sound to participate. Otherwise a dog is very likely to be injured. Just like with Endurance Sports there is natural conditioning that is incorporated during the training process. Training proper jump form for agility is essentially basic plyometrics. However, just like with Endurance Sports, additional conditioning is required for optimal performance and safety. If dogs have a safe, individually tailored plyometric conditioning plan, they are more likely to continue to have proper form as they tire. Without proper conditioning, dogs, just like people, are more likely to get injured as proper form deteriorates. Because of the physically demanding nature of plyos, it is important for there to be rest days after a dog has participated in these sports, whether competing or practicing. A great way to shorten an agility dog’s career is to do demanding plyo training every day.

Bringing It Together

Let’s look at most breeds’ National Specialties for an extreme example. These events are typically held over a longer period of time than your average show/trial. For Portuguese Water Dogs, this event is 10 days long. For Staffordshire Bull Terriers typically 3-4 days. I’m not well versed in other breeds’ events. What I’m getting at, is these events are generally longer than typical shows/trials, and many dogs participate in multiple areas of competition throughout the event.

How often does your dog compete in Rally, Obedience, Agility, Conformation, and their breed specific sport (if they have one) all in one week? The answer is typically once a year, or longer, if you don’t trek across the country for every National. Because of this, you will typically see your dog lose stamina and then lose focus as the week goes on. If you’ve properly built your dog’s stamina up, and safely included plyo training, in the months and weeks leading up to the National Specialty your dog is more likely to be more successful. There are, of course, other factors that play a role in your dog’s success at their National Specialty, but what if their conditioning wasn’t a factor?

I’m helping organize a 4-Day PWD Water Trial. How often do most PWDs do water work 4 days in a row? I’m curious to see if the Q rate decreases throughout the weekend or if it stays consistent.

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