Preparing Your Canine Athlete For Competition

January 13, 2012

Whether you compete with your dog in field trials, agility, flyball or any other of the active dog sports you will need to start thinking of starting a conditioning programme after the long summer layoff with less exercise than he or she normally gets.

Your Agility and Flyball dog will need to build the muscles needed to cope with jumping and quick changes of direction, whereas your pointer will need to start working on those muscles that require longer distance running over a variety of terrain.

Bear in mind that running up hill uses different sets of muscles than running down hill.  Retrievers will need to work on shorter sprints but will also need to be supple enough to crawl through low fences and climb up steep embankments and jump across narrow gullies.  A retriever will also be required, often, to swim long distances.

When planning your conditioning programme start slow and build up to your optimum fitness goals.  Plan it so that your dog is peaking at the very first trial of the season.

Cranial Cruciate Ligament Injuries

Owners of sporting dogs know that a diagnosis of an injury to the knee is not good news. The most common stifle (knee) injury is to the cranial cruciate ligament, or the CCL.

There is no reliable way to prevent stifle damage in active dogs. The stifle (knee) joint in dogs is extremely vulnerable to injury because it has no interlocking bones to provide support or stability. A dog’s stifle joint depends upon ligaments for stability. The cranial cruciate ligament provides most of this support and, when torn or ruptured, causes the most common hindlimb lameness in companion and sporting dogs.

However, in humans, new research is investigating ways to prevent ACL injuries in an effort to avoid lost time from sports and competition.  The stability of the knee is dependent on different factors. The two most important are the static and the dynamic stabilizers of the knee.

  • Static Stabilizers
    The static stabilizers are the four major ligaments of the knee: the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), the medial collateral ligament (MCL), and the lateral collateral ligament (LCL).
  • Dynamic Stabilizers
    The dynamic stabilizers of the knee are the muscles and tendons that surround the joint. These muscles and tendons are controlled by what’s known as neuromuscular input, the unconscious activation of these structures to control the position of the joint.

Neuromuscular training is used to teach the body better habits for knee stability. By training how your knee moves, especially when jumping, landing, and pivoting, you can maintain a more stable position of the knee joint. Several studies have shown that neuromuscular training programs can reduce the chance of an ACL injury.  One of the programmes was developed by the the Santa Monica Sports Medicine Research Foundation and can be downloaded from

I believe if one could develop a similar training programme for dogs it would minimize the risk of CCL injury, particularly in those sports that involve rapid changes in direction at speed, often combined with a jump.

Warm up and Cool Down

Any time you exercise your dog it is very important to warm him up and afterwards cool him down.  Don’t take your dog out of his crate or the back of your vehicle and walk to the start line without the warm up.  Get the blood flowing with a short walk or jog.  The warm-up stimulates the delivery of increased oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.  Also do some simple stretches to limber up the tendons and ligaments.  Teach your dog to do a play bow; have him sitting in front of you and get him to stretch sideways to get an offered treat first to the left and then to the right.

After you have finished your run, don’t just pop him back in his crate or the back of your car.  Cool him down first with a slow 5 minute walk with a couple of “sips” of water out of a bottle.  Check him over for any soreness in his joints and then let him rest.

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