As a Veterinary Physiotherapist I help a lot of sporting and working dogs. I help them recover from injury, as you’d expect, but I also help them get fit and stay fit.
So what makes a strong and athletic dog? As with human athletes, it depends on what activity the dog does. Usain Bolt, Beth Tweddle, Mo Farah and Serena Williams are all formidable sportsmen and women . They all train hard but their training programs have a different emphasis to gain the right results for their sports.
There are four main components of fitness and different activities need different sized pieces of the pie. Sled dogs need a chunk of stamina, a big portion of power and smaller pieces of the balance and flexibility. Agility dogs need sizeable chunks of the power, balance and flexibility and a smaller chunk of the stamina. However, I would argue that all dogs need all four pieces of the pie!
Mo Farah has stamina, successful middle and long distance runners are good at moving fast for a long time. The more efficiently the body can get energy the longer it can maintain the speed. Stamina fitness takes a while to develop, and also takes a while to fade. Regular, longer off-lead walks are a good starting point for developing stamina. Hydrotherapy can also help with stamina.
Power is the ability to produce a lot of force in a short period of time. Usain Bolt is an awesome example of power. There are several different ways to develop this type of fitness; the most suitable choice depends on your dogs activity. Bolt will do a lot of sprint work but he will also lift weights and do ‘eccentric’ and ‘plyometric’ work. Human sports is the only area where there is evidence and a successful history of using eccentric and plyometric work. As a rowing coach I used weights, eccentric work and plyometrics very successfully for many years with the junior athletes I coached. If power work is done badly it can cause damage; a fully qualified Veterinary Physio is your best source of advice for what’s best for you and your dog.
Hitting a tennis ball over 100mph with one arm, standing on one leg requires balance. Balance will be an important element of Serena’s training. So how on Earth do I get my dog better at balancing? A good starting point is off lead walks on different surfaces such as the beach, the woods etc. Your dog will have to work out how to balance on different and uneven surfaces.
There are specific exercises that we can do to increase your dogs awareness of where their limbs are. Good balance helps your dog to apply power more safely and helps to protect joints by making them more stable.
The use of unstable surfaces (like wobble cushions) is controversial. There is a lot of misuse of peanuts and wobble cushions; the challenge must be appropriate for the dogs ability to get the correct effect. Used correctly unstable surfaces can be helpful; a fully qualified Veterinary Physio will be able to help you pitch the level of challenge correctly for your dog. This is one time when a youtube video is not the best way to learn!
Some of us are able to touch our toes… others are not so lucky! Dogs have the same range of natural ability to flex and dogs can also improve their flexibility with practice. Your dogs can turn tighter with good flexibility and supple muscles are less likely to get injured. Active stretches are easy to teach you and your dog, these are stretches where your dog does the stretching. They can be helpful before a walk or competition. Static stretches, where the human does the stretching for the dog, should not usually be done before exercise; you should get a Veterinary Physio to show you how to do them safely. Static stretches can cause damage if they’re not done properly; try stretching a human friend to see how difficult it is without being shown how to do it correctly!
Total load of what?! The total load is the sum of what your dog does each day, week, month. There was a famous rowing coach who used to say “there’s no such thing as overtraining, only under recovery”. However, overtraining is a risk for top athletes and results in a drop in performance and increased risk of injury. Keeping a diary of your dogs activities is a useful way to keep track of everything they do. Nutrition and weight are also factors to consider.
Dogs that compete and need to prepare for a big event will benefit from a periodised and specific training plan. A Veterinary Physio with experience of elite sports will be able to help you with this.