Athlete - a person trained or gifted in exercises or contests involving physical agility, stamina, or strength; a participant in a sport, exercise, or game requiring physical skill.
From childrens soccer teams to professional football players; its not just about playing the game, and according to the definition above, dogs that compete in agility are athletes. Conditioning is a part of preparing for sports. It prevents injury and helps athletes perform at their best. No matter what your goals are for you and your dog, conditioning should be a part of your routine. The great news is not only will it help your performance, it will better the bond between you and your dog. By developing a conditioning program specific to your sport, the benefit will be even greater for the both of you.
What you may not know is that fitness work requires a great foundation, just like agility training. You need to do your flatwork first before you start running courses! No matter your dogs age or strength, it is important to build off of a great foundation. As in all things we teach our dogs, some will progress quicker than others. A sharp dog that learns quickly may surpass his strength level in the training, and while he understands what you are asking, he wont be capable of performing the task. Once a dog understands a fitness behavior, it will take 8 to 12 weeks for the muscles to adapt to the new exercise. At this point, the dog no longer gains any benefit from the exercise, and it is time to move on. Increasing the difficulty of the exercise is easy. You can add repetitions, use more unstable equipment, or increase the height of the target. There is never a point that we cant increase difficulty, especially if you remember to take breaks throughout the year.
How you train the behaviors for conditioning is also very important. When using fitness equipment, you can place the dog on the equipment, lure them, or use previously-shaped/captured behaviors that can be generalized to the equipment. Shaping is breaking down the behavior into smaller steps and rewarding those small steps, until you get the behavior you want. Capturing is rewarding a behavior that already happens so that the dog offers that behavior more often. My philosophy is to use shaping or capturing, so that the dog learns what you are asking and builds strong neuro-muscular pathways. I use both methods to build my foundation behaviors for canine fitness. These neuro-muscular pathways are generally known as "muscle memory."
When you place your dog on the equipment, the dog is not building any neuro-muscular pathways. You are actually doing all the work for the dog. While some dogs may not have any issues with this, some dogs may find this very scary and become anxious around the equipment. Luring, especially with a very food motivated dog, may get the results you want quickly, but I would argue that dogs really have no idea what they are doing with their bodies. When you take the food out of the picture, you are left with much more deliberate movement. While shaping/capturing might take the longest, especially if you struggle with your click/treat timing, you and your dog will get the most out of it. The neuro-muscular pathways are built the fastest using this method and will provide the "muscle memory" needed to help prevent injury in the heat of competition.
Based on my philosophy for canine conditioning, Im introducing "Workout Wednesday." Every other Wednesday, I will break down an exercise into its basic foundation behaviors and how you can progress the exercise. This exercise will focus on the strength and core portion of a conditioning plan. To give you a little bit of a sneak peak, here are five of my foundation behaviors:
Front Paw Target
Rear Paw Target
All 4 Paws Targeted with neutral top line and neutral limb position.
Symmetrical with rear legs in full flexion. Pelvis should not be rocked over to either side.
Kickback Sit to Stand
Square sit to a stand by keeping front limbs stationary and pushing off the ground with rear limbs into a normal standing position.
I hope you will join me every other week to learn more about canine conditioning. It may be a workout, but it is still about having fun with your dog!