Regular exercise and keeping your dog in good physical condition is important for all canines, and essential if you are thinking about participating in any dog sports together. Human athletes prepare their bodies before hitting the court or field, and it’s the same for canine athletes. Well-conditioned dogs are less likely to be injured than “weekend warriors” who lounge around most of the time, then play hard on occasion.
From regular walks and swimming to coordination training and visits to specialists, active lifestyles have made canine athletes are fitter than ever before. In the ’90s, it wasn’t unusual to see competitors take dogs from crates right into the ring to run hard, then put their dogs right back into their crates. Thankfully, much has been learned over the years about the importance of conditioning canine athletes between trials and when actively competing.
Before beginning any kind of dog sports training, it’s important to research the sport, how high impact it is, and if there are any health considerations for different kinds of dogs. Not every sport is right for every dog.
Visit a local AKC show and talk to competitors about how they prep their dogs for training and competition to get a better idea of if the sport is a good fit for your dog. For example, a large breed dog who has had knee surgery isn’t a good fit for high impact sports like Fast CAT or Agility, but they can have a lot of fun with tricks or Rally because both can have a lower physical impact on the dog’s body.
Keeping your dog active is key, but if your dog is an athlete, it’s not enough to just let them out into the backyard to play. Conditioning will require intentional engagement with you to make sure your dog is getting the right kind of exercise, such as gentle warm-ups and cool-downs. For example, if your dog has just run hard, you’ll want to do some cool-down walking or gentle trick training, instead of putting them back into a crate and driving home.
Cooling down will help your dog’s heart rate and breathing return towards normal resting levels and will deter your dog’s muscles from becoming sore after strenuous exercise. A lot of conditioning is about your dog’s physical fitness, but there is a mental component as well. Trick training is a great way to stretch your dog’s brain and keep your dog mentally exercised even without a lot of time or space or when warming up or cooling down.
If you and your dog are looking to become more active, or if you are considering signing your dog up for a sports class, it’s always a good idea to visit your veterinarian for a full physical. Talk to your vet about your sports plans and ask if there are any concerns about your dog’s health before pursuing that sport. This health check may involve X-rays to look at your dog’s growth and joint structure.
Conditioning puppies has to be done very slowly and carefully. While they are still growing and developing, a puppy’s bones and joints are fragile, so you must be careful with any kind of fitness routine. Talk with your breeder and your vet about what amount of exercise and what kind of exercise is appropriate for your puppy.
If you have a large breed or giant breed dog, it’s important to remember that it will take significantly longer for your puppy to finish growing than for smaller breeds. Giant breed puppies are still growing for the first 12 to 18 months of life. You want to wait for a dog’s growth plates to fully close before beginning any kind of structured exercise or conditioning routine to avoid injury.
Serious canine athletes will need a more involved conditioning routine specific to the sport(s) that they compete in. This may involve specialized excises to do at home or before competition, as well as regular walking, running, and/or swimming routines. Specialists such as massage therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and physical therapists may also help keep canine athletes in peak form. Hydrotherapy, such as using an underwater treadmill or swimming, is another way for canine athletes to build and maintain muscle.
If you suspect an injury to your canine athlete, your vet might not have the right experience to diagnose appropriate treatment of illness for athletes and may refer you to an orthopedic specialist or canine sports medicine practitioner to develop a treatment, recovery, and ongoing conditioning plan for your dog.
Forcing your dog to stretch by moving their limbs is something that should only be done with the support and guidance of a veterinarian or veterinary physical therapist. It’s very easy to accidentally stretch your dog’s limbs too far and actually cause your dog pain, or even an injury.
However, supporting active stretching, where your dog is taking the lead in how far they stretch, is a great way to help warm your dog up. A few safe tricks that provide good stretches can be easily taught by luring your dog with a treat. These include bowing, crawling, spinning to the right and left, or teaching your dog to put their front paws up onto a low object.
AKC Fit Dog
Staying active with your dog is not only good for them, it’s also good for human health, and will help you keep up with your dog as you begin training and competing in sports together. The AKC Fit Dog program is an ideal way to motivate, challenge, and inspire yourself to get out and be more active with your dog.
To qualify as an AKC Fit Dog, you and your dog can participate in two different ways, depending on your level of fitness. The first option involves walking at least 30 minutes five times a week, for a total of at least 150 minutes per week, for at least 3 months. The second approach, designed for senior dogs or others who benefit from a shorter walk, allows you to qualify with walks of at least 15 minutes per session, at least ten times per week, for at least three months.
For more information about the AKC Fit Dog program, download a record-keeping sheet, and when you and your dog complete the Fit Dog Challenge, you can register your dog for their free car magnet. But, remember to start slow. If you and your dog haven’t previously been active, it’s a good idea to build up slowly towards your daily walking goal, and most importantly have fun!