Canine Conditioning

Canine athletes and workers need coaching and conditioning for success


Baseball players....
Agility dogs....
Olympic runners....
Sled dogs

Jockeys, racing dogs, race car drivers, search and rescue dogs, tennis players, herding dogs, mountain climbers, hunting dogs – all must be in top physical condition to pursue their jobs or sports.

No matter the sport, athletes train year-round; when not competing on the field or track, they can generally be found in the gym, the weight room, on the golf course, or the batting cage. They hike, jog, ride bicycles and horses, drive golf balls, field grounders, swim laps – anything to build and maintain strength and endurance for all kinds of climate and field conditions.

Dogs involved in strenuous sports or careers need similar attention to their physical and mental states.

Starting out

A pup headed for a career in agility, hunting, lure coursing, racing, sledding, water rescue, go-to-ground, search and rescue, carting, backpacking, or police or military work should have a predilection for the jobs from birth. Not only must he be healthy and intelligent, his structure must be suited to the work. Breed is important because breeds have different structures. And parents are important because they pass structural strengths and weaknesses to offspring.

Conditioning and practice can hone ability and build stamina, but they cannot overcome poor or unsuitable structure or replace limited brain power. Basketball and football use diverse physical attributes and mental savvy, and both differ from baseball and golf. Dog careers follow the same logic – racing dogs are built differently than draft dogs, scent hounds have different innate skills than sighthounds or retrievers, and guard dogs have different builds and skills than terriers or spaniels.

Puppies headed for a career in any field should come from parents that are free of various joint abnormalities and eye problems. Fortunately, joint x-rays can determine the potential for problems and eye tests can ascertain the presence of eye disease, so breeders have some tools to help predict the structural and physical health of puppies.

However, healthy eyes and joints are only part of the puzzle. Length of back, width and depth of chest, spring of ribs, joint angles, and ratios of bone length all play a part in physical ability.

Puppy training

Training programs for puppies always begin with building a bond with the owner, learning basic obedience commands, and socialization. No matter what innate drives a pup has inherited, he will not work to his full potential for an owner he cannot trust or respect, and he will be stifled in his work if he is not accustomed to changing environment and situations.

Even though many working dogs will never enter an obedience ring, they must learn the jargon of their professions. “Come,” “heel,” and “sit” are universal, and “stand” and “down” come in handy. “Find” is critical in many canine careers.

Obedience training should begin the minute the pup enters the home. Once the veterinarian has given the green light, the pup should be enrolled in a kindergarten or conformation class and should travel everywhere possible with the owner.

Puppy obedience training is always low key and often involves guiding or tricking the pup into the proper response. Perfuse praise and other rewards follow the correct response and mistakes are ignored. Puppies are never hit, jerked, or otherwise forced.

Puppies should get chances to use their natural abilities if they will enter a profession, but they should never begin serious physical training until about 14 months, the age at which the bones’ growth plates have closed. In her book Peak Performance: Coaching the Canine Athlete, writer Chris Zink DVM, PhD, said:

“Puppies (under a year of age) should not be asked to jump obstacles higher than about three-quarters of their height at the shoulders. Puppies have an increased risk of injury due to heir relative lack of coordination, because their bones are immature and softer then those of adult dogs, and because their muscles are not yet fully developed. … Even after a year of age, young dogs should not be worked strenuously until their muscles have been developed by a program of increasing exercise over a period of several months. Just as with human adolescents, canine adolescents need time to adapt to their new bodies and to develop coordination for the specific skills they will be performing.”

But waiting to do the strenuous stuff doesn’t mean postponing either instinct tests or job training. Even as a puppy, a potential herding dog can be placed in a yard or pen with a small flock of geese to see if he’s interested in gathering them together. A potential hunting companion can be watched for his attention to birds, accustomed to the sound of a hunting rifle, and taught to fetch and carry.

Retriever and Newfoundland puppies can be introduced to retrieves in shallow water. Potential search and rescue and police dogs can start tracking, and future arson, drug, and contraband sniffers can learn how to find objects.


Working dogs must manage their jobs in different circumstances under different conditions. They must be able to work on all surfaces, in all weather, and in a variety of environments. Hunting dogs must not be afraid of gunshots and should be able to retrieve in fields and swamps and ponds. Therapy dogs must be accustomed to slick hospital floors, wheel chairs, walkers, clanging bedpans, and elevators. Search and rescue dogs must not be distracted by false trails or by anxious onlookers.

Socialization begins with the breeder. Before puppies are weaned, they should be exposed to sights and sounds of a normal household and allowed to walk and play on different surfaces.

Once protected by vaccinations, puppies are ready to accompany owners on trips to the store, to playgrounds and soccer fields, to parks and lakes, or anywhere else they can experience new and different smells, sights, and sounds and learn confidence around people and other dogs.

Physical conditioning

First, make sure that the dog is structurally sound. Even if his sire and dam are free of hip and eye problems, any dog headed for a physically taxing job or sport should be checked for skeletal health. Dogs with bad shoulders, knees, ankles, or hips should not be asked to jump or compete in any strenuous event or career.

Serious physical training involves a planned schedule of exercises suited for the dog and the job. A dog in training for search and rescue work uses his brain and body differently than a dog that will pull a cart or sled or one that will retrieve shot birds. Even within a breed, the task determines the type of training. A Golden Retriever who will become a guide dog or a service dog requires a different training plan than a Golden that will work in the field or the agility ring.

Physical training builds both muscles and endurance. Training sessions should begin with stretches and end with a cool-down period. Again, from Peak Performance: “Dogs love to stretch and can be trained to do so by giving acommand such as ‘stretch’ when the dog initiates a stretch on its own.

“Eventually, the dog will make the association and stretch on command. I have taught my dogs to stand up on their rear legs and stretch their front legs upward against my chest while I massage the muscles of their backs.”

Walks are excellent for conditioning if the dog will maintain a pace instead of stopping for every bush and fire hydrant. A conditioning walk should traverse different types of terrain; it works best if the dog has relieved itself before starting and thus is not as tempted to make frequent stops. Running and jogging also provide a good workout as long as speed and distance are gradually achieved.

Swimming is a great exercise for dogs as it allows muscle actions and increases cardiovascular endurance without stressing the skeletal system.

Agility training is not only preparation for competition, it helps a dog boost confidence, exercise muscles, improve coordination, and increase suppleness. A dog that can traverse the narrow board of the dog walk, climb and descend the A-frame, balance on the teeter, crawl through the tunnel, jump obstacles, and maneuver the weave poles, and do so by command, exercises body and mind in preparation for more serious work.

Training schedule

Training should gradually increase in intensity and length with close attention to the dog’s condition and attitude along the way. A dog that is pushed too hard will quit or break down.

Sessions should fit the dog’s character; some dogs prefer one long training session split with play while others do well with several short sessions during the day.

Training can be broken into segments with emphasis on different skills throughout a week. An agility dog might work on two or three types of obstacles one week and different obstacles the following week. A search dog might work on tracking and finding today and tomorrow, on air-scenting for drugs or contraband next week, and on endurance in between.

Adult dogs

Adult dogs can learn new tricks. Some dogs trained as service dogs come from shelters, and many adult dogs get a new lease on life when exposed to an exercise program or given a job to do. Many retired obedience and conformation dogs are now active in agility, and many adult dogs go from one sport or job to another.

An adult dog that has not been selected and trained with a job in mind should be examined by a veterinarian before starting a physical training program. The dog should be free of arthritic changes in shoulders, elbows, knees, hips, and spine; have a strong, healthy heart; and test free of eye disease.

Physical problems do not disqualify a dog from participating in all sports or endeavors, but may dash hopes of agility competition, long days in the field, or a career in search and rescue. Dogs with physical limitations can still enjoy exercise and training, but the program will differ from that devised for a healthy dog preparing for the same work.

Getting started

These activities serve many purposes: they benefit the dog by keeping him in shape, giving him useful employment, and building a bond with his human companion; they benefit people by providing opportunities to work hand in paw with another species, gain assistance in hobbies or jobs, and broaden horizons and abilities. Best of all, there’s an activity for everyone who wants to participate, from relatively low-level involvement obedience training to the intensity of search and rescue – with many steps in between.

The first step to getting a dog started in any sport or profession is to find a mentor who can guide you through the maze of training requirements, evaluations, and opportunities. The American Kennel Club sanctions tests and trials for hunting, herding, lure coursing, and go-to-ground breeds as well as events for agility and obedience dogs. The United Kennel Club is big on coonhound events, obedience, and agility. Individual breed clubs also host tests and trials that honor and perpetuate the skills for which their breeds developed and provide training tips and assistance for those who want to participate.

Search and rescue groups can be located through local police departments. Local herding, hunting, and coursing clubs can be found through AKC, national or regional breed clubs, or local kennel or obedience clubs. Many obedience clubs also offer training in agility and tracking.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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