We have just seen some of the fittest people on the planet compete in London at the Olympics, how fit are they! What’s the secret?
Well, aside the very wise decision of choosing the right parents (genetics), high performance athletes are very fit and work hard for their chance on the world stage. But fitness is not only a matter of winning a gold medal, it’s about quality of life, for us and also our dogs. We have worked as sports scientists with many elite athletes, of the two-legged human variety, particularly triathletes, runners, cyclists and swimmers in Australia, UK and Europe. Many of the principles of training athletes can be applied to improving the fitness of our dogs.
(Inset pictured is Professor David Pyne wearing Australia’s first Gold Medal in the 2012 Olympic Games!)
A good level of fitness substantially reduces the likelihood of illness, decreases injury risk, and enhances task-orientated performance. Fitness plays such an important role in quality of life and enjoyment of every day activities. Well, the same applies to our canine mates! Keeping your dog fit centres around maintaining a healthy mental and physical condition with adequate nutrition, a variety of exercise and activities, and appropriate rest. Fitness is also essential for Training In Drive, show events and other types of dog competition including obedience and agility. The intensity and duration of your dog’s drive will be reduced if your dog is out of condition and lacks fitness.
When it comes to fitness, the main difference between our dogs and us humans is that WE might CHOOSE to be unfit BUT our dogs don’t have a choice. And if they did, they would choose to be fit! Some dogs become overweight and unfit because they are not exercised the right amount or the right way, or their calorie intake is too high. Making the right choices can make a big difference with your dog and your goals with him/her. General fitness is the foundation of a good healthy lifestyle and for dog owners with more ambitious goals, it prepares the dog for more intense and demanding activities. Specific fitness relates to preparing your dog for specific task/jobs/activities in organised dog sport or your own personal interests. Taking a dog for a daily walk or run doesn’t necessarily make him/her good at jumping hurdles/frames or holding a stationary position for a period of time (i.e. standing for examination or a sit stay). So the question is, is your dog fit enough for both general healthy and specific sporting activities?
Getting your dog fit initially and then maintaining fitness over time are two different programs. To improve fitness you need to progressively overload the system, whereas to maintain fitness you only need to keep the load the same (20-30 min low to moderate intensity activity every day for weeks/months). For example, taking your dog for the same distance and intensity walk every day would maintain your dog’s current fitness but not improve it. Fitness needs to be worked on progressively and continuously in the adolescent or mature dog. Activities engaging puppies, mature dogs and older dogs are very different although we are not going to deal with specific age ranges here.
The basic elements of improving fitness are overload (training) and adaptation (rest and recovery) and supercompensation. Supercompensation relates to reaching a higher level of fitness than previously and involves systematic well-planned increases in exercise and training loads. Supercompensation is achieved when the body has been overloaded (unusually stressed). Overload can be defined as performing an activity that will prove to be demanding for the dog because he or she is not accustomed to the mode, length and/or intensity of training. When we overload our dogs, fatigue can occur for up to 6-24 hours. But if we allow sufficient rest and recovery (quiet or crate time away from other dogs) the dog eventually reaches a new ‘fitness level’ that is higher than that previously attained. The process continues over weeks and months with each additional overload pushing the fitness level that little bit higher every time. Hence, an activity that a dog did a month or two ago and felt so hard feels much easier today. However, supercompensation and adaptation are difficult to achieve if we never get to stress our dog’s system (reaching fatigue) or we don’t allow enough rest/recovery afterwards (i.e. they guard a five hectare area during the day). For some dogs 1 h of rest is enough to get going again while others might need up to 24 hours.
Building up your dog’s fitness is like building a house. The first step to constructing a house is to lay foundation for it (general fitness), then you structure the lay out, build the walls, put the rooftop and decorate the interior (specific fitness). Without the foundations, you cannot build the roof on top!
The process of improving general fitness needs to be progressive and incremental – you need to build up the general fitness first by slightly increasing the workload each time. You don’t want to take your dog for a 5 min run the first day and go for a whole 30 mins the next. Slowly build the time you spend doing the activity and allow for the dog to adapt to it by resting. A rule of thumb is to increase loads by no more than ~10% per week.
A good general fitness level combines healthy cardiovascular and respiratory capacity, core strength and stability, agility and a good range of movement.
A healthy cardiovascular and respiratory capacity
Cardiovascular and respiratory fitness (i.e. the foundation to build our house on) are best developed by low intensity and longer duration tasks on and/or off leash. Taking your dog for a walk while you cycle at 18 km/h is low intensity for you but not the dog! Once you are able to prolong the activity chosen over a few weeks/months (depends on age, starting fitness level, breed and goals) you can start to increase the intensity (i.e. alternate 30 s jogging, 4-5 min walking) using the classical interval training method adopted by most elite (human) athletes. Interval training involves shorter or longer intervals of exercise or training interspersed with short, moderate or lengthy periods of rest, recovery or lower-intensity activity. Throwing the ball 10-20 m away and allowing the dog a bit of rest between runs could be an example of this.
Once your dog is comfortable with adding a little intensity you can make the higher intensity periods longer and the lower intensity sections shorter. Free walking/running and playing with your dog are great ways to improve cardiovascular fitness. This work doesn’t have to be boring. Be creative and go to different places and/or offer your dog a treat or two every now and again. Have a little race with your dog for a few metres during a walk and he/she will love it! A great way to do this is practicing recalls over varying distances. This time spent building cardiovascular fitness could be a great way to enhance engagement and spend quality time with your dog.
Core strength and stability
Core strength is important for many reasons. Core muscles also called stabilizer muscles keep our skeleton in place and are responsible for keeping our posture upright (for the humans at least!). Core muscles are usually small muscles located closest to the skeleton and furthest from the skin. Because they are relatively small and are not easy to target with most exercises due to the large muscle groups covering them, core muscles often get very little workout. These are best targeted with sustained positions and slow and subtle movements. Balance-based exercises are ideal for developing core strength and stability, and getting your dog to stand on an uneven surface is too (i.e. large semi-circular ball to stand on, wobbly discs etc.). Working these muscles increases body awareness and proprioception, which help your dog to place their body in relation to space and the surrounding environment at all times, a great skill to have in heeling for example.
Here is a challenge for you; stand on one foot and close your eyes: how long did you last in position? Improved body awareness means dogs crash less into you or non-moving objects in the environment. No matter the position we are in, our core muscles are keeping the body stable! Good posture in dogs is important so that the skeleton is held in shape no matter the activity the dog is doing (e.g. jumping, running, standing still, going through a tunnel in an agility course etc.). Problems often arise from having very strong large muscle groups and poor core muscle strength. That’s when the big muscle-groups pull on bones and you can have a long-standing injury in your hands. Teach your dog to give you a paw and offer him a treat every time, then for every 2 seconds his paw is in your hands. Change paws and then do the same with the back legs, in a sitting position, etc. This is a great game and a way to improve your dogs stability and core muscles.
Agility is the ability to change the body’s position efficiently in motion. Agility work is important for all dogs not only those competing in agility trials. Young puppies and dogs that train in drive go through a wide range of motions (often unconsciously) due to the high levels of drive. The best way to avoid an injury in these cases is to improve your dog’s agility so it doesn’t cost him/her much to move his body around. An agile dog can perform static as well as dynamic motions at ease and smoothly. Agility requires harmonious interaction between the skeleton, core muscles (stabilizers) and the larger groups of muscles (i.e. triceps in the front legs and biceps femoris on the back legs). Large imbalances between these three groups can increase the risk of an injury. You should expose your dog to different activities that target different muscles of the entire body.
A good range of movement and gait
The ability to undertake a large range of movements is important for every dog and is achieved by exposing your dog to many different games, movements and training tasks (e.g. walk, run, jump, side to side steps, walking backwards, balancing on unstable surfaces etc.). Warming up a little before engaging in high intensity moves or exercise always helps your dog to get ready.
Appropriate rest and nutrition are fundamental to support the work and maximize adaptation!
Once your dog has a good general fitness and strong foundation you can start thinking about developing more specific fitness on the tasks you need or want your dog to be fast, strong or agile at. Specificity of movement and exercise is important to achieve a higher level of performance on a given task/event. Specific fitness comes from making use of the general fitness already developed to achieve a smooth and efficient way to heel, go through the agility course or hold a static position for a length period of time (sit or drop stays) or any other dogsport or event chosen.
Age, physical and mental maturation of your dog are important considerations when choosing the type, duration and intensity of an activity for your dog. Of course fitness adaptations are temporary and if the dog stops all activity because of injury, or the owner runs out of time to take the dog for a walk for a lengthy period of time, fitness will start to deteriorate. There are also strategies to freshen up your dog by doing nothing for a day or two, you will see how fresh and full of beans your dog is afterwards! Regular rest and recovery helps with drive too but we will leave those specifics to Steve!
Improving fitness is about enabling your dog to live life at its fullest and achieve his/her physical and mental potential. Our young GSD and us have tonnes of fun playing hide and seek behind trees, calling him from one to another, running, climbing up mounts of bark chips, changing directions laterally (side to side) as if trying to get away from him and many other games and activities.
Training in drive and playing with your dog are great and fun ways to also get yourself fit, so immerse yourself in the journey, TODAY!