In order to do strenuous activities with our dogs such as agility, flyball, lure coursing, dock diving, herding, or even being a running companion they need to be in good physical condition. Just like humans who participate in sports our dogs also need to be cross-trained and have a good level of general fitness to excel at their sports and minimize injuries. In this first article I’m going to concentrate on 3 simple and easy to accomplish activities that require no special equipment, just a little planning and time. This blog post applies to adult dogs. For puppies the amount and type of exercise needs to be reduced depending on age. See my previous blog post on Young Dog Exercise Guidelines for more information.
Walking and Hiking
If you do no other fitness activity with your dog this should be the one. Most of us do quite a bit of walking already but with a bit of attention to detail and mixing things up a little this can become a core part of your dog’s conditioning. Ideally the best conditions for walking your dog is a softer surface – think forest floor or perhaps beach, but almost certainly a surface with some variation to it. The surface could include slopes and small ditches and perhaps fallen logs or other debris. The variability of the surface is important for a few reasons. Walking on uneven surfaces help your dog develop the muscles that will stabilize and help protect vulnerable joints. Secondly it preserves and can help proprioception, which is the dog’s ability to sense where their limbs are and to move them appropriately in any type of environment. However, if your only nearby option is flat pavement this is still helpful, especially if it can be supplemented by trips to a park or beach.
It’s also ideal to let your dog vary their speed and use a full range of motion. Probably the best way to do this is finding a quiet and safe walking trail where your dog can be off leash for periods of time, particularly if they are prone to pulling or straining on leash. This can only be done if they have a reliable recall and remain under voice control. The benefits of off-leash need to be weighed against the risks of environmental hazards or encountering aggressive dogs or even other hikers who don’t want interactions with dogs. In a hiking situation where my dogs are off leash I let my dogs jog and move ahead as long as they remain under voice control. Once I hear signs of nearby hikers I will snap on the leash. For the most part during walks my dogs are on leash using a Y-shaped harness that promotes the best possible range of motion and keeps them secure. Also, although I allow my dog to move at a variable speed during the walk I do not promote them running ahead at top speed in an uncontrolled way such that they lose connection with me and are not as mindful of their environment as they should be.
The speed of your walk isn’t as important as walking regularly and with lots of variation in terrain and distance. Some days should be on flat trails and others on hills, making sure not to do multiple days of hill climbing in a row if possible. I would aim to walk my dogs on the days of the week they are not doing strenuous training sessions or doing other conditioning exercises. A typical routine might be 20 – 30 minute walk 3 – 4 times weekly and a 1.5 – 2 hour hike 1 – 2 times weekly.
Controlled Running on the Flat
I like to think of my dog running on the flat being equivalent to a human jogging around a track. I called it controlled running as it’s really a warm up or cool down exercise or a conditioning exercise with some duration where my dog is not running at top speed. For example, it should not be the Mach speed of a chasing game that your dogs may have in your back yard.
Ideally controlled running is done on a fairly flat surface with a long perimeter where you are promoting even extended striding. A school sports field or other large field is ideal, but a backyard or an exercise area at a show site can also be used. If it’s a warm up in an area that my dog are not as familiar with I will jog around the area and ask my dogs to keep pace with me for 5 minutes or so doing at least one change of direction. Often they will carry a ball or a toy as a reward for participating in the activity, but I do not use the toy to help bring up the dog’s arousal level in this activity. If controlled running is done as a cool down or purely conditioning activity I will extend the duration to 15 or even 20 minutes finding the largest possible area to work with. It is also possible to train your dogs to run around cones or posts set at progressively further distances apart so they are doing their controlled running independently.
Although not always possible year round in many parts of this country, swimming is an excellent cross-training activity to fit in whenever you can. In addition to the fact it is not weight-bearing so provides relief for joints, swimming can really help cardiovascular fitness. And once they learn many dogs love it.
Swimming pools can be great as they provide an environment that is generally hazard free and can be temperature controlled. Even if you don’t have your own pool, in many parts of the country there are dedicated swimming pools for dogs that are undergoing rehab or just doing swimming for fitness. Lakes or safe beaches without currents are also great during the warmer months and can be a great way to develop the enthusiasm for swimming. Dogs can start off retrieving in shallow water and get progressively deeper as they get accustomed to it.
Generally most of the swimming I do with my dogs involves swimming to and retrieval of a floating toy in a pool. As this is a fairly high intensity activity I provide a platform for them to rest on from time to time and I limit the sessions to about 15 minutes. In a beach or lake situation where the time between each retrieval is longer that sessions could also be slightly longer.
One of the dangers to watch for with swimming is excessive swallowing of water. Taking in some water while retrieving a toy is expected but some dogs may be overexcited and take in large volumes of water or even think the water itself is a toy, which can be dangerous. Also, even with hardy breeds a few minutes of sustained swimming in water that is too cold can be harmful. Most often your dog will let you know when conditions are not right for them but it’s always err on the safe side.
So as you can see conditioning doesn’t need to be a whole extra complicated set of exercises to add to your and your dog’s routine. If I need to choose between a conditioning activity, such as hiking, and training, such as an agility session, I’ll always choose conditioning. Probably my ratio of conditioning time to training and completion sessions runs around 6:1. A typical conditioning routine might be the following: a shorter walk 3 – 5 times weekly, longer hike 1 – 2 times weekly, controlled running on the flat 1- 2 times weekly. In the summer I will substitute swimming for shorter walks when possible.