When it comes to training dogs in agility there are different schools of thought as to what elements are essential to success. One area that is so often overlooked is overall fitness. I am not talking about the level of fitness your dog maintains by going on a walk every morning and taking agility class once a week. I am talking about the level of fitness developed through a careful, calculated strength & conditioning plan. Dogs are amazing creatures; in ten minutes’ time they can get physical benefits akin to you or I spending a couple of hours doing cardio and circuit training in the gym. Lucky dogs!!
Whether you want to compete at the local, national, or international level, you owe it to your canine partner to prepare him to handle all of the physical challenges that might arise on any given course on any given day. I am a firm believer that success starts away from equipment, and properly equipping your dogs’ bodies to perform the task at hand is of utmost importance. How can you expect your dog to keep the bars up, if the only conditioning those muscles get is doing jump grids? How can you expect them to hit their contact no matter the approach, the exit, and the traction onthe surface of the obstacle? How can you expect precision on a variable/moving target like the teeter, if their bodies have been taught in stationary position, rather than challenged dynamically along the way? We expect so much from our canine partners, and they deserve everything the world has to offer in return.
Simply teaching the mechanics of jumping, but not properly strengthening all of the muscles that play a supporting role is setting your dog up for failure, either in the short or long term. If you teach the dog that “no matter what the bar is to stay up”, but in order to do so with their unfit bodies they have to employ spinal twisting, forehand loading, or hyper extension, you are setting them up to fall apart physically. Most very driven dogs will absolutely do everything they can physically do to keep you happy. They can only hero themselves over bars for so long before it starts to take an unnatural toll on their bodies. If everyone spent more time focusing on the strength & conditioning of their canine partner, and less time on jump grids, I feel that as a whole we would have a whole lot more bars staying up, and many more dogs being able to have an agility career that looks more like a marathon than the Kentucky Derby (not in speed, but in distance/time). If you train train train your criteria criteria criteria and your dog comes out of the starting gate, sails into the upper echelon of competition, wins everything at 2-3 years old, and is then riddled with injury after injury until he eventually retires…what have you gained? I would personally prefer to have my canine partners by my side for many years of agility together. I don’t want them to feel undo pain at my doing, and I therefore set them up to withstand the physical demands over a long period of time – not to grin and bear it for a short while.
Every dog is different, and everybody has a different amount of time to commit to the training and fitness of their canine athlete. I would challenge that it is far more important to spend 10 minutes when you get home from work doing some simple indoor exercises with your dog than it is to load him up every night of the week and drive across town to an agility class. Dogs really can get a great deal of benefit from very short, targeted sessions of exercises. The results I see in a short amount of time are astonishing.
Josie at 11 months
I first became interested in the fitness side of dog agility when my now 8 year old Border Collie Josefin was just a pup. It was pointed out to me that I had purchased a dog that while gifted in many ways, structure was not one of those ways. She was, and of course still is, straight as a board front and rear. Luckily she is balanced (equally straight both ends!), but I knew early on that if I wanted to be able to play agility with her for many years, I would have to invest in her fitness above and beyond what the average dog would require. Once she matured, I set off on a mission to hike, swim, and otherwise cross train Josie as many nights of the week after work as I could manage, and most weekends, too. I didn’t have any coaching or guidance, I just made it up as I went. We’d naturally take days off here and there each week due to my hectic work schedule and deadlines, but there was no set weekly schedule. I learned that hill fetching was good for building butt muscles, and swimming was about the only cardio we could safely manage in the Texas heat for many months of the year. We lived in an apartment, so our indoor space was limited.
Josie at age 7
I used pillows and furniture to challenge her balance as exercise equipment wasn’t in the budget. I never thought about strengthening one muscle at a time. Instead I simply knew I needed to keep her generally very fit, with a strong core, and that was my main mission. As a result, my very straight heart dog is 8 years old and still going strong and turning in competitive times in the 22” class. She only lacks a few Standard Q’s for ADCH-Platinum, and will settle in to 16″ across the board pretty soon, title or not. No need for extra wear and tear when she’s just as happy to play at a lower height. I got lucky in her jump training. Being so straight in the front made it rather uncomfortable for her to launch from the front, so she was easy to convince that powering off the rear was the way to go. Since training her I have found that dogs with excellent structure and lots of drive are harder to teach correct jump form to because they can so easily just launch from the front and appear successful to the untrained eye. Dogs do what works, and given the opportunity will do what’s most comfortable, so the more we can make the two mesh, the more successful we will be!
Rikki at age 2
My young dog Ricochet has taken me on a journey altogether different than the one I took with Josie. Rikki is built very well. She is built for power and for speed. I worked to formulate a structured strength & conditioning program for her as she matured, to make sure she developed every muscle she needed to keep her kamikaze ways from destroying her body once we started to seriously train agility obstacles. Unlike Josie who was perfect in the ring from the get-go, Rikki and I worked through a good deal of “OMG this is too fun!!” in the ring her first year of trialing, and focusing on taking obstacles in order was more my aim to start off with. Once we got on the same page, had a startline stay in the ring, and generally ran the same numbered course each time, I could get down to the details. I noticed her running dogwalk had gone from 3.5/4 strides, to consistently 5 strides. I noticed that she had a hard time on soft turns, mostly to the right. She missed some AFrames. I noticed she seemed to launch nicely from the rear, but was still pulling bars as she wasn’t extending as I knew she could. I consulted a number of people on the matter and while many said “looks like a psoas injury” by her bar-knocking, the medical professionals couldn’t find a thing wrong with her body. Despite not changing anything in her diet or exercise routine, she also got rather skinny in early 2014. I feared something terrible was wrong with her, but nothing showed up in her bloodwork. So curious to me, all of this. During this time many people suggested I “get stricter” with her bar knocking, that I “teach her to respect the bars”, that I do all sorts of things it just didn’t feel right to do. Deep down I knew that my internal dialogue screaming at me that there’s always some underlying physical explanation for obstacle performance issues couldn’t be wrong. I lost sleep over this – I really just didn’t know how to help my sweet Ricochet.
She turned 3 this March, and three days later I had her spayed via laparoscopic ovariectomy. In the post-spay report from the vet I received word that one ovary was much larger than the other, covered in cysts, and likely very painful. Well, wouldn’t you know that a cystic ovary would likely present much the same as a psoas injury? I’ll be the first to admit that scoping the ovaries was about the last thing on my list of diagnostic tools for our bar-knocking problem. A single week after the ovariectomy she was already so much more comfortable in the air. 2 weeks and she could do things she hadn’t been able to do in a long time. 3 weeks later she was back to taking only 3.5 or 4 strides across the dogwalk instead of the 5 she’d settled into. All of a sudden we were Q’ing more often than not. Bars stayed up. Everything started to fall into place, as if the final missing piece of the puzzle had finally been found.
Bars will still fall – she’s a dog, not a robot. Contacts will still be missed – she’s a dog, not a robot. The break-away tire continues to be our nemesis – she’s a dog, not a robot.
I tell this story to highlight a common mindset that I feel is a mistake. The general feeling in the agility world seems to be that you train it, then you require compliance after that. But that mindset clashes with the reality of the situation: dogs are not robots. (Mine are not, anyway). They are individuals. They have good days and bad. They can get injured, sore, or fatigued. They do what they know, they do what works, and they aim to please. I wish every time I saw someone blaming their dog for a mistake on course, that the handler would take a step back and look at what they could do *besides* punish the dog for the mistake. Could you strengthen the rear end? Could you increase their core strength? There are so many things we can provide our dogs to keep them safe and healthy as we ask them to perform like Olympic athletes every weekend. If a dog of mine, or a dog in one of my classes all of a sudden presents with an obstacle performance issue out of the blue, the very first thing I do is make sure there is nothing physically wrong, before I try to alter the behaviour through training. 9 times out of 10 it is something a visit to the accu/chiro vet or a little cold laser treatment will clear right up.
I challenge everyone to train less, strengthen & condition more!
I have been lucky to have the opportunity to work with Liz McGuire (who worked as a certified strength & conditioning specialist on the professional and Div 1 Collegiate level for 10 years) since Rikki was about a year old. She gave me specific exercises to strengthen areas of weakness, and create a physique that could handle anything this sport threw at it. Since Rikki’s spay I have really focused on re-strengthening the muscles that the intense hormone fluctuations took a toll on in the recent past. On top of the exercises we learned from Liz we have also incorporated a variety of treadmill workouts influenced by Robert Porter (VT, LMT, CCRP). In the 2 months since her spay, with thrice-weekly strength & conditioning sessions, she has gained 3lbs of muscle. She was scrawny at 31lbs and is now again looking rather buff at 34lbs and 18.75” tall. Her strength is obvious and the difference in how she sails around a course is easy to see. I do have more time on my hands to work with my dogs than the average competitor, but it does not take a lot of time to make a big difference. Even with all the time we have available, our strength & conditioning sessions are rarely over 30 minutes in length. When we first started, the sessions lasted 5-10 minutes. It is easy to over-do it with targeted strength exercises so you have to make sure you don’t push past the point of diminishing return.
Everything in moderation…
On the flip side, you can absolutely overdo it with an eager pooch. Dogs’ bodies deserve the same consideration as any athlete. After a workout, their bodies deserve time to rest and recover. My dogs that are currently competing have a pretty strict activity/rest schedule. It works for us. Think about making a schedule that would work for your household. For my actively training/competing dogs, our schedule goes like this: Monday is a rest day. By rest day, I mean that we do nothing. They sleep, relax, lounge around the house, and snuggle. We don’t hike, we don’t play Frisbee, and we don’t go on walks or do any strength & conditioning exercises. They rest. Unless they want to wrestle among themselves, which they often do by the time dinner rolls around. They do exactly what they choose to do all day long, which mostly involves sleeping and other such activities. Tuesday & Wednesday are high-activity training days. I teach on these days and we spend over 12 hours at the training center. I sprinkle short training sessions in or them throughout the day as my private lesson/class schedule allows, and they get a big workout late in the evening after I have finished teaching for the day. Thursday is a rest day. Most of the time we are travelling somewhere for a weekend of fun, and Thursday is spent mostly in the car travelling, or in the house sleeping as I pack the car to travel. Friday to Sunday are trial/active days. Then we circle right back around to Monday, where we rest and recover after a weekend of trialing, hiking, or any other fun activities. That’s two prescribed rest days per week for my crew.
I feel that it is just as important to have a plan for rest as one for exercise and training. Over-training is at least as damaging as under-training. Dogs deserve mental and physical rest, time to just be. Don’t you feel rejuvenated after a day of just doing whatever you feel like doing, not being told to do anything, and taking as many naps as you want? Dogs do, too!
Moderation really is a key element in dog training.
Here are a few simple indoor exercise routines you can do with 10 minutes and items you have around the house. This is a young dog (about 1yo) doing a short indoor workout, and then in the second video you can see the difference in just a few weeks of training these muscles, just how much stronger she becomes in a short amount of time.
The exercises in these next two videos are advanced, and I suggest working with a canine strength & conditioning specialist before embarking on anything as intense as what Rikki is demonstrating below. I am including these two videos mostly to give you an idea of what a difference a single month of targeted exercises can do for your dog. These were shot 1 month apart, and you can really see how much stronger she is, and how much more muscle definition she has from one video to the next. The level of difficulty in the exercises has increased, the speed at which she is doing them has increased, and the control she has over her body is clearly improving.
I realize not everyone has easy access to a treadmill, but there are lots of other options out there for everyone. One good tool to use is a hill, ideally one at a 25-40 degree pitch. Too low and you won’t get much benefit, and too steep and your dog will revert to using their front end to pull them up the hill so you will lose the benefit of the work. I have found that the school yard down the street from my house has the building built up out of the floodplain the soccer fields sit in, so the hill from the fields to the school building makes a nice slope for us to workout on. Only 10 reps in a session. This is very hard for them and very easy to overdo. Notice in the hill fetching I alternate which lead my dog is starting on each time by having her swing around me so that she gets an equal workout on both sides.
(In this video you can see a distinct difference in when I use food as a reinforcer and when I use a toy as a reinforcer. This outdoor workout wasn’t very useful with the cheese/chicken reward, but with a chuck-it ball her form greatly improved and she got a much more successful workout in. The good footage starts at 2:09, so feel free to start there!)
Here are some great ideas on ways to use very basic exercise discs that you can pick up at any store that sells fitness items. They’re easy to come by, but in a pinch any old pillow or cushion will do as long as it has a non-slip surface.
Remember in any exercises you do, keep things dynamic. The dog performs agility in motion, so many of the muscles you develop should be developed in motion. Here is a very basic introduction to getting on and off the ball with Rikki. She had never seen this setup before and I just wanted to challenge her ability to stabilize herself as she got on and then back off the ball for the most part. You’ll notice that while I train using shaping to get behaviours and teach tricks, I use a lot of luring for strength & conditioning exercises. I do this because if I leave it up to my dog to offer behaviours, I will likely get them done at warp speed, and since precision is a key element in some of these exercises I like to keep my dogs from bouncing on off and around things at warp speed.
I hope I’ve given you some things to think about with this post, and I hope you will take a look at your current training program and honestly evaluate what you can improve upon away from the equipment to better equip your dog to perform the tasks at hand.