Conditioning Your Dog
All dogs need regular exercise to stay healthy, but canine athletes need conditioning to build up their stamina and improve their athletic performance. If you've ever gone out and done a strenuous hike or long bike ride after spending a sedentary week in your office, the soreness you experience the next day is a tipoff to the importance of conditioning.
Top herding dogs can cover as much as 100 miles a day. Field trial and hunting dogs must run or walk for miles all day long, as well as retrieve from cold and sometimes rough water. Sled dogs may race 1,200 miles in less 10 ten days.
All this should make you appreciate how much work goes into conditioning a dog. Help your dog avoid the weekend warrior syndrome by gradually increasing her level of activity and the length of time she spends doing that activity.
How to Start
A dog that's in condition has the appropriate level of physical fitness for the activity he does. Whatever sport you try walking is the best and easiest way to start conditioning your dog. Depending on his age, size, and general level of health, begin with short walks on leash. Puppies or overweight dogs might start by walking a quarter mile, or whatever distance you can go in five minutes. (Most people can walk a mile in 20 minutes.) Gradually work up to a half mile and then a mile.
Remember that high-impact exercise such as running or jumping on hard surfaces is detrimental to a young dog's musculoskeletal development. The growth plates of large-breed dogs don't close until they're 14 to 18 months old (small breeds at 10 to 12 months of age), so avoid jogging, running, or taking your dog over high jumps until he reaches physical maturity.
Once your dog is at a basic level of fitness, you can start conditioning him for a specific activity. Like any athlete, your dog needs strength, flexibility, and stamina. To help him achieve peak performance, it's important to understand your dog's musculoskeletal system and recognize signs of lameness. By monitoring your dog's response to workouts, you can help prevent the muscle aches and pains that come with too much exercise.
Once your dog is at a basic level of fitness, you'll need to pick up the pace. Walk faster, break into a jog, and play games that involve running. Introduce sprinting by walking for a minute, then jogging for a minute, then dropping back to a walk. Gradually increase the distance you jog before returning to a walk.
When he's competing, plan to exercise your dog half an hour every day (with one day off every week for rest). Dogs that compete only seasonally — in field trials, for instance — can stay in shape with a daily 15-minute workout, increasing to half an hour daily a couple of months before the season begins. Break up this chunk of time by focusing on different aspects of fitness.
Types of Exercise
To build up your dog's strength and stamina, take him jogging, run him alongside a bicycle, play fetch with a ball or dumbbell, take him swimming, or allow him to run off-leash in a safe, enclosed area. If you're highly motivated to condition your dog and you have money to burn, consider investing in a canine treadmill. Walking or running on a treadmill can improve your dog's strength, balance, and coordination, and it's convenient on rainy, snowy, or hot days.
Lots of dogs love to chase flying discs, but jumping and twisting to snatch them out of the air can cause injury. If you play this game with your dog, keep your throws low to the ground.
Working on flexibility can be flat-out fun. Teach your dog tricks, such as bows, spins, and waves. Walk him in circles and figure eights. All of these motions help keep your dog limber. Even if you don't compete in agility, consider setting up some weave poles in your back yard. Going through them increases flexibility, improves coordination, and helps strengthen your dog's back. If weave poles aren't an option, teach your dog to sit up for a treat. That's another good back-strengthener.
Other types of exercise can help your dog improve balance and develop specific skills. Have him practice stepping on and off objects and stepping over a bar (such as a broomstick) on the ground or a very low jump. Walk him on leash on both level and uneven surfaces so he's accustomed to both. Change pace frequently, moving from a slow walk to a fast walk and back again or from a walk to a trot and back to a walk. If you compete in obedience, make sure to teach your dog to heel on both sides so that he stays supple.