There's a saying that the most affectionate creature in the world is a wet dog and I'm sure dock diving competitors would agree! Dock diving is a fast-growing sport that has become even more popular in this year of required social distancing. As trainers and dog owners we may find ourselves at a bit of a loss on how we can best prepare our dogs for the sports they do. One way we can help our dogs perform their best and reduce their risks of injury is to understand the physical demands of the sport our dogs participate in.
For many dock diving competitors, one of the biggest challenges of the sport is its short training and competition season. In Canada, a dock diving season may only have 12 weeks of good weather. This means that competitors in dock diving will need to keep up a consistent conditioning routine during their off-season so their dogs are prepared to return to the sport. In this week's blog, we'll take a deep dive (pun, fully intended!) into the sport of dock diving!
What is Dock Diving?
First introduced to the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge in 1997, dock diving is a relatively new sport. A typical event has a handler and their dog on a 36-foot dock, 2 ft up and adjacent to a 45-foot-long swimming pool. The dock is usually covered with artificial turf, carpet, or rubber mats to provide better traction for the dogs. The handler may use as much or as little of the dock as they wish as a starting point for their dog.
The jump distance is measured, by most organizations, from the lateral midpoint of the end of the dock to the point at which the base of the dog's tail (where the tail meets the body) breaks the water's surface. Each dog takes two jumps in a round-robin format. The longer of the dog's two jumps is the score for that competition.
There are several different dock events your dog can compete in during the course of a competition. These events may have several jumps, called splashes, for the dog to perform. To keep things fair, competition is divided into categories that allow dogs to compete with canines of comparable size and ability.
Some of the events you may see in dock diving are ...
An ideal jump from the dock will have the dog launching from the very edge of the dock. An early take-off from the dock will shorten the dog's distance over the water. A dog's stride will greatly affect their starting point of the jump. Handlers will often adjust the dog's starting position on the dock so that their dogs can get into a stride that brings them right to the edge.
There are generally two different techniques employed by handlers to set their dogs up for leaving the dock.
The Physical Challenges of Dock Diving
Dock diving can look deceptively easy. Unlike a sport like agility, which has numerous pieces of equipment and a long training period to prepare for competition, dock diving relies heavily on a dog's natural instinct to retrieve. As a result, it's not uncommon for dogs to progress quickly from "just learning" to competition. However, despite appearances dock diving has a number of physiological challenges and it's vital that we understand the areas of sport performance that place the most demand on our dog's body.
From a physiological standpoint, let's break down a dog’s splash performance.
Introducing Puppies to Dock Diving
There are a few considerations that should be taken into account when considering starting a puppy in dock diving. It's when our dogs are learning something new that they're at the most risk of injury so introducing your pup to dock diving (or any sport) should be done carefully and in a manner that's appropriate for their age and development. While their growth plates are open your puppy is vulnerable to impact injuries and repetitive strain injuries. I would recommend that puppies with open growth plates focus on learning to swim and become familiar and comfortable entering and leaving the pool via the ramp. Remember that puppies are often uncoordinated and lack hind end awareness so jumping from a slippery dock is an unnecessary risk when they're young. Additionally, the force of hitting the water impacts the cervical spine and can lead to injuries to the disks. Jumping from the dock is something only dogs with a mature skeletal structure should do.
Potential injuries that can occur...
As with any sport, injury can occur and dock diving is no exception. There are a number of potential injuries that can occur that owners and competitors should be aware of when participating in dock diving.
A key part in preventing injury is to monitor for signs of fatigue. For the dock diving dog, I would suggest monitoring their jump and swim performance. A dog showing a poor jumping form, decreased jumping distance, or sluggishness in the return swim could be showing signs of fatigue Our working dogs are often eager to please and will often try to "power through" fatigue. As handlers, it's important that we enforce breaks in both training and performance. For more information on recognizing the signs of fatigue click here. A great way to prevent injury is to also implement a proper warm-up and cool down routine. Given the explosive nature and jumping effort in this sport, warmed up muscles will help to contribute to a better overall performance. For more information on the importance of the warm-up and cool down make sure to check out my e-book - you can find it here!
Conditioning the Dock Diver
When I talk to people about canine conditioning there is often a misconception that it's something we do when our dogs have an injury and are in rehab. This couldn't be further from the truth! In fact, as a PT I encourage a proactive approach and not a reactive approach to canine conditioning. Meaning, I'd rather prevent an injury in the first place over managing an injury. Conditioning should be part of our sporting dog's regular training schedule! Through conditioning work, we can help our dogs prepare for the demands of their sport, improve their performance, and lower their risk of injury. If an injury does occur, conditioning work gives our dogs a quicker recovery time.
Now that we know the physical challenges present in the sport of dock diving we can plan a conditioning program to suit. Conditioning of the dock diving dog will not only reduce their risk of injury but will also improve the distance and height they can jump and increase their overall endurance. There are a few key areas the dock dogs should focus on...
When compared to other dog sports, dock diving may appear to present less of a physical challenge to our dogs. However, after taking a closer look at the sport performance we can see that dock dogs have unique physical challenges that require their own exercise considerations. Because the handlers and dogs can progress quickly from training to competition it's important to assess our dogs to ensure they're ready for the demands of dock diving. During competition season it's equally important to regularly assess our dogs to ensure they're not displaying any signs of discomfort or pain. Remember, that our working dogs are driven and swimming is an inherently rewarding activity so our dogs are likely to push themselves beyond their limits.
I strongly believe dock diving dogs in particular can benefit from a consistent conditioning program. Unlike other sports which can move indoors during the colder months dock diving is still largely constrained by seasonal competition and training. This results in dock dogs having longer off-season then other sporting dogs. By having a consistent conditioning program we give our dock dogs a helping hand in preparing them for the challenges of the sport and reduce their chances of injury.
Special thanks to Kelly Beres, Shianna Fairley, Angie Kenney, Amanda Mercanti, Heather Parsons, and Kayla Swanberg for their help and insight on the sport of dock diving!
Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). "How dogs do the 'dog paddle': An evolutionary look at swimming." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/01/140105102502.htm (accessed September 4, 2020).