Does your agility dog have what they need to succeed?
The key to success at whatever level you are in the sport of agility encompasses many different factors. One factor that is well known to reduce injury and improve performance and happens to be in your control actually happens off the agility field and in the canine gym!
Think of any sporting venture you have attempted or currently train/compete at. Did you just do your sport-specific training, or did you have some other cross-training activities that you did to help improve your performance? Chances are, you completed specific exercises and workouts that would help to enhance and compliment your sport-specific training.
For the past month, we’ve been taking a deep dive into the sport of agility; reviewing the history of the sport, potential injuries and how to prevent them. In our final instalment breaking down the sport of agility it is time to review the role of canine conditioning. Canine conditioning (aka fitness training) is important for all dogs, but particularly for our agility athletes.
Canine conditioning has certainly grown in popularity over the past 10 years. Agility competitors are increasingly starting to recognize the importance of sport-specific exercises to compliment their sport-specific training skills. Agility dogs need to be in peak physical form and canine conditioning is a great way to ensure they are ready for the physical demands of the sport. Properly conditioned dogs not only perform better but are also less likely to suffer a severe injury. Completing canine conditioning exercises with your dog has SO many benefits including:
When working regularly in the canine gym with your dog, you will start to see these physical improvements (e.g. power, strength, balance, endurance, flexibility) start to translate into your dog’s sporting performance. Your dog will be able to better adapt to changes in direction, explode off the start line and out of turns/tunnels with more speed, improve their confidence with completing contact equipment and be able to handle the intricate and difficult maneuvers seen in the jumping requirements of this sport.
Weekly conditioning exercises will not only improve your dog’s performance but will also reduce their chances of injury and keep them in overall better health. As well, conditioning increases your dog's ability to carry load on their muscles. This is important as injuries occur when muscles experience excessive lengthening and stretching under a load that they are unprepared for. By improving your dog’s physical condition through targeted and specific sport exercises you can a) improve the muscles ability to withstand load and b) minimize the fatigue response that occurs when muscles are deconditioned. When your dog’s muscles fatigue, they can become clumsy and more apt to fall or stumble. This is definitely not ideal for the agility dog and can increase their risk of injury. Canine conditioning also targets muscles that can be under-utilized in regular activities like walking, running and hiking (e.g. small stabilizer muscles). During these activities, large muscle groups tend to take over and the smaller muscles/stabilizers can get neglected. Without targeted conditioning exercises, this can lead to undesirable compensation issues in your dog’s body and various muscle imbalances.
Canine conditioning is for ALL dogs training or competing at any level. I often get asked how early I start conditioning foundation training with my agility dogs and the answer is – right away! Puppies are clumsy and while it’s part of their charm it’s important that we teach them how to use their body efficiently and develop confidence and love for the canine gym. For those just getting into canine conditioning, there is no time like the present. This is especially important for the future agility star as many of the behaviours you teach in canine condition also apply to their sporting career.
The best conditioning program is one that has been thought out and is sport-specific. The sport of agility has many physical elements that we ideally want to mimic in the conditioning gym to help increase specificity and results in your fitness training. For example, if you train and compete in dock diving, your program considerations and what exercises you train in the canine gym would be different than what would be required for herding or flyball. Does a 3000m runner need to work their 100m short game sprint? Likely not. A short distance sprinter would not need the same training and workout routine as a long-distance runner as the way their muscles are utilized and called upon are quite different.
When designing a conditioning program for the agility dog, there are a few things to consider:
These considerations can have a large impact on how you design your agility fitness program. It is always recommended you consult with your health care professional to be sure your dog is ready and physically fit to begin an exercise program. From there, it can be helpful to have your health care provider or fitness coach guide your program design so it is tailored, specific and takes into account the unique characteristics of your dog. This will not only save you time but increase your efficiency and results in the canine gym!!
A word of caution...
Beware of Social Media Experts
When designing your agility program for your dog, be mindful of the type of exercises you are practicing. How often have you seen a video of a dog performing conditioning work and thought – my dog can likely do that? The challenge with online videos is we’re often seeing the impressive end result of a specific conditioning exercise that has multiple layers to it. With all the various social media platforms that exist (e.g. FB groups, Instagram, YouTube, Tik Tok) it can be easy to become overwhelmed with all the information available at our fingertips. Far too often I have seen students “put the cart before the horse” in their conditioning sessions because they saw something online and thought their dog could do that. The reality is, often what we see online, can be deceptively complicated.
When you see a cool video online, stop and think about what it is you’re viewing. Is this an exercise that would be appropriate and SAFE for your dog? Is it functional? Is it a movement pattern that your dog will utilize either in sport or general life? Does your dog have the foundation skills to complete this exercise? When designing your program for your agility dog you want to be sure the exercises are safe, appropriate, functional and mimic the movements and requirements of the sport. This will help to reduce the risk of injury associated with canine conditioning AND improve the specific areas of your dog’s body that are needed for agility.
Building an Agility Fitness Program
Keep in mind, before you “work out” or “condition” your dogs, it is important to train the necessary foundation behaviours and that these behaviours can be executed with proper form and posture. Without proper form during exercise completion, you not only lose specificity of the exercise (e.g. not working the desired muscles) but it can create muscle imbalances between your dog's front/hind end and left and right side of their bodies. Similar to sports training, there are various levels and stages of learning to get your dog to the end result or behaviour. The foundation layer is vital and the skills your dog learns will be called upon as they progress. Once your foundation layer is solid, you can start to add more challenges and incorporate exercises together to create circuits and work outs. These sessions tend to be longer in nature (e.g. 15-25 minutes) and based on the fitness level of your dog.
In order to see improvements in strength, balance, power, etc., we have to ensure we are providing sufficient challenge and “overload” to the musculoskeletal system. Without proper overload, we will not see the desired improvements and results we are looking for. If we provide too much overload, we run the risk of potential injury due to tissue overload. It is about finding that balance and sweet spot with your individual dog and that can take time to master!! Remember, this is a journey!! Let’s take a look at the common signs of fatigue that you might see when conditioning your dog:
Don't forget about your rest days!
Do not forget about your rest days!! Rest days are an important part of your conditioning program. When working out the body experiences microtears in the muscles and soft tissues and it’s during rest that your dog’s body will start to repair and rebuild the muscles into a bigger, better, and stronger version. For muscles to handle increased demand placed on them during workouts or competition it’s vital that after a workout you give your dog some time to recuperate. Inflammation and delayed onset muscle soreness can also appear after a workout and can take up to 72 hours to resolve. Without sufficient time to repair and rebuild your dog will experience a decrease in power, strength, speed, and endurance. Rushing into another exercise day following an intense workout may negate the rewards and benefits of fitness training, risk injury, or reduce your dog’s enthusiasm. Aim for 1-2 rest days a week.
There are six key elements that should be included in your agility dog’s conditioning program.
Endurance is an important element for the agility dog and helps to keep your dog performing their best during their training classes, seminars and weekend competitions. Endurance, simply put, refers to your dog’s muscles lengthening and contracting over a period of time without fatiguing. This applies to any of the muscles in your dog's bodies, including the heart or cardiovascular system. Ideally, you want your dogs to have the endurance to be able to complete multiple runs over a weekend without sacrificing performance and speed. As your dog’s endurance improves, it will take longer for fatigue to set in!
Cardiovascular endurance is also important for the agility dog as the stronger your dog’s heart is, the better the heart is able to pump blood and oxygen to their limbs. Increased oxygenation and blood to your dog’s musculoskeletal system will improve their performance, their strength and reduce muscle fatigue and cramping.
Walking your dog is a great activity to build their endurance!! Be sure to walk your dog for at least 30 minutes at a moderate pace 3-4x a week to help improve their endurance. Swimming and hiking are also other endurance activities that can be performed with your dog.
2) Muscle Strengthening
Agility dogs need overall muscle strength in order to perform the sport of agility with speed and accuracy. Your dog’s front/hind end as well as their core are heavily engaged when running agility. By strengthening these areas, you help your dog’s explosive power, jumping, turning and overall muscular endurance. Given that the sport of agility requires your dogs to move in three planes of motion, your strengthening exercises should also be completed in three planes of motion to effectively target the muscles. Let’s review the three planes of motion:
Another consideration when strength training your dog is your equipment selection, which ultimately will govern which muscles you are targeting. Stable equipment will work the larger muscles while unstable equipment tends to work the smaller stabilizer muscles and core.
A general strengthening conditioning program 3 times a week for 15-20 minutes (depending on the fitness level of the dog) working to the point of overload is recommended.
Strength Training Example - Sphinx Down
3) Explosive Power
Power refers to the ability to exert force and how quickly you can exert force to produce the desired movement. Plyometrics is a type of exercise training that uses speed and force of different movements to build explosive muscle power. In human exercise, you may hear plyometrics referred to as “jump training.” In plyometric training, your dog’s muscles are quickly stretched (eccentric contraction) and then quickly contracted (concentric contraction) in short bursts. These exercises teach coordination, takeoff and landing mechanics, movement patterns, and stabilization of the joints. This is a key element of any sports program for the agility dog to help achieve greater speed, explosive power out of turns (e.g. tunnels, off contact equipment) and improve their overall jumping ability.
A conditioning program that focuses on power and explosive exercises 1-2 times a week is ideal. These sessions can also be incorporated with your regular strengthening sessions.
Explosive Power Example - Destination Jumping
Flexibility refers to the range of motion of each joint. Inflexible and tight muscles create less power. Less power will negatively affect your dog’s performance in agility and can increase your dog’s chances of injury. Tight/weak muscles will tire more quickly and rely on neighbouring structures (e.g. joint, muscles) to be used more. Over time, this will lead to muscle imbalances and compensation issues that will place more strain on the body.
One of the easiest ways to determine your dog’s flexibility is to perform a few stretching exercises with them. Try having your dog wrap a cone and see if there is a noticeable difference on the left or right side. Do they pass wide one way yet tight the other? You can also have your dog perform cookie stretches to assess their flexibility. Have your dog turn their nose into their hip in each direction to see if they can stretch the same distance each way. These tests can also be turned into exercises to help improve flexibility! Cone wrapping is an excellent exercise for body awareness and spine flexibility.
Flexibility Training Example - Cone Wrapping with Body Awareness
In agility, your dogs are asked to perform narrow obstacles, such as the dog walk and teeter, with speed, confidence and precision. Balance exercises help to maintain proper posture and to keep the dog upright on various surfaces and environments. Body awareness refers to the dog’s ability to know where his body is in space which in turn gives them better control, more fluid movements, and decreases mis-stepping. To successfully complete the various obstacles in agility, your dogs will need an acute sense of where their body and legs are in a space – this is called proprioception. The better your dog’s sense of balance is the more confident they will be on narrow surfaces. A key way to improving balance is to familiarize your dog and work them on unstable surfaces. This will help their overall balance, stability, coordination and reaction time!
Working on unstable surfaces, such as a round balance disc, will challenge your dog’s balance system and activate their core and small stabilizer muscles. Prior to working on unstable equipment, be sure your dog can hold proper posture and posture on stable equipment. We don’t want to add any balance challenge to your dog’s exercise if they struggle to find position on stable pieces of equipment. Specific balance exercises should be worked 1-2 sessions a week using primarily unstable pieces of equipment.
Balance Training Example – Random Balance
6) High Intensity Interval Training (HITT)
Agility requires your dog to be able to sprint as fast as they can for (on average) anywhere between 20-45 seconds. As such, incorporating spring/interval training in your conditioning program is recommended. HITT focuses on high bursts of energy for short periods of time rather than working out at a low or medium intensity. This is a great way to mimic the sport of agility and start to improve not only your dog’s anaerobic system (the cardio vascular system that does not require oxygen) but also helps to strengthen your dog’s fast twitch muscles that are used for fast, explosive type movements like sprinting. The anaerobic system and these fast twitch muscles fatigue quickly and can only be used for short periods of time. By incorporating sprinting exercises into your conditioning program, you are setting up your dog to be able to activate their sprinting system quicker and more efficiently! A great HITT exercise that you can do with your dog is figure eights with cones or barrels spaced 20-30 feet apart, keeping reps to 25-45 seconds. You will need to work up to this! Don’t expect your dog to be able to handle a 45 second rep the first time you try the exercise!
HITT Example – Sprinting Between Cones/Uprights
Avoiding Excessive Concussive Forces
When conditioning your dog, you should always be mindful of how many concussive exercises you are including in your program – e.g. jumping down, landing, plyometric training, high speeds. Sport specific training is already hard on a dog’s body – think of how many jumps your dog might complete in a given training session. If we are attempting to complement their sport training with conditioning, we do not need to have every session to include exercises that are high in concussive forces. This will be different for every dog based on what they are used to. Slow and purposeful movement is our main goal in the canine gym. You want to make sure that what you are doing in your canine gym positively benefits your dog’s health and doesn’t lend to excessive wear and tear on their body. While we want some muscle wear to occur in order to obtain growth, we want to be mindful that too much wear can have a negative impact on the body. Take some time to think over your exercise selection prior to beginning your training sessions to avoid the risk of injury.
A final word...
Taking the time now to work on conditioning with your dog is important in preparing them for an active agility career. Conditioning will help minimize the risk of injury and ensure your dog can continue to do the things they love with you for longer. Remember, no athlete in life enters into a competition without first training and exercising. The same should be true for your dog! Canine conditioning is a fun way to bond with your agility dog and the benefits of conditioning extend well beyond the realm of wellbeing and health. Remember that weekly, consistent practice is key – just like it took dedicated time and effort to train your agility dog, canine conditioning will also need time and practice.
Of all the dog sports we’ve looked at so far in our sport breakdown series it’s easy to say the agility is one of the most physically demanding sport your dogs can do. However, just because agility asks a lot of both us and our dogs doesn’t mean that helping our dogs meet the physical demand, avoid the risk of injury, and have fun in the sport is an impossible task! In fact, you may be surprised to learn that agility is one sport that with a little time and dedicated both you and your dog can enjoy a long and fruitful sporting career.
If you are looking to help your dog meet the physical demands of the sport, reduce injury risk, and improve your dog’s longevity in sport then you may want to keep an ear to the ground for my surprise announcement that’s coming! This surprise is a project I have been working on for quite some time with the agility dog specifically in mind. If you want to be the first to learn more details join my Early Bird Announcement list to be the first to hear!
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The Canine Agility Athlete: The Sport & Common Canine Injuries
Lorna Clarke BPT, MBA, dip canine rehab Cathy Sajtos bscpt, CHT, dip mani ppt - April 2014 – Presentation For The Animal Rehab Division Of The Canadian Physiotherapy Association