Condition Your Dog to Compete (Part 1)

Can you imagine the Olympics without the athletes stretching before competing?

By | Posted: Mon Feb 28 00:00:00 PST 2005

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"One of the attributes I look for in a canine athlete is strong trunk muscles, [which are] one of the most important areas to strengthen in the human athlete, and mostly ignored in the canine athlete," says McCauley. "I also want strong hamstrings and gluteal muscles for jumping, strong triceps for pulling with the front limbs, and proper body structure - something we can't change!" In addition to routine conditioning, McCauley recommends stretching and quick warm-up sessions a few minutes before going into the ring, a short massage afterwards, monthly chiropractic sessions during the competitive season, and quarterly adjustments in the off season.


Sarah Johnson, PT, of K9 Fit N Fun in San Anselmo, Calif., can personally attest to keeping both teammates in optimal condition. An athlete all her life, Johnson had reconstructive knee surgery in 1977, years before starting agility. She has virtually no ligaments in that knee, and runs agility in a knee brace. She keeps herself in shape with a regular routine that includes interval and sprint training that reduces wear and tear to her joints. Her Border Collie, Cruiser, has benefited from Johnson's keen understanding of the value of preventive conditioning.

Last year, 9-year-old Cruiser achieved her AKC MACH, a USDAA Bronze Lifetime Achievement Award, and became the oldest dog in any category to qualify and place in the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge. Now 10, Cruiser recently took first place at the 2004 USDAA Championships in the Veterans 16" class. Johnson, who accompanied the AKC World Team to France in 2003 as the team's fitness consultant, says, "Educating people about how to prevent injury, both to themselves and their canine partner, is my passion." To that end, Johnson is completing a course of study in canine rehabilitation at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, where extensive research in that field. Her goal is to team with a veterinarian to produce a DVD for handlers to become better educated about general conditioning for their canine teammates. "Many handlers don't know appropriate stretching techniques for themselves, and that often applies to their dogs as well," she says.

McCauley concurs: "Can you imagine the Olympics without the athletes stretching before competing? Stretching moves the fluid in the joint to cover the cartilage with rich nutrients. It also stimulates the proprioceptive nerve endings in the joint capsule to make the dog more aware of its feet in space. This can help decrease the incidence of slipping off obstacles, knocking bars, and hitting contacts," she says.  "Massage gives the handler a chance to feel if spasms, tenderness, or excessive muscle tightness are present, as well as to increase circulation and decrease lactic acid accumulation in the muscle tissue." McCauley shares the following tips:

  • Warm-up: a short walk or play enhances circulation and warms the muscles, thereby decreasing the chance of a tear. 

  • Strengthen not only the muscles needed for the event, but also the muscles that stabilize the joints that will be stressed.

  • Note breed differences: Border Collies have tight hamstrings and need to improve trunk stability, while also strengthening the gluteal and hamstring muscles to be able to jump more from the rear. Dogs with straight shoulders such as Fox Terriers have decreased strength in the supraspinatus muscle, which is one of the muscles that stabilize the shoulder joint. It makes it hard for them to reach forward, and limits their stride length.

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