DogWorld Magazine, April 2005
Condition to compete -- Part I
In a 2003 survey of 75 agility handlers nationwide, 68 percent said they were not at "optimum weight" for their sport. Sixty-one percent of respondents reported that they exercised only twice a week, and 69 percent said they would like to participate in an exercise program that would better prepare them for competition. These numbers confirm what media reports tell us: almost two-thirds of adult Americans are overweight. Is it too hard to imagine that our dogs may be out of shape as well?
"Agility is very demanding on the human musculoskeletal system," says Desiree Snelleman of Fido'n Friends...In Motion, in Long Beach, Calif. Snelleman, who conducted the survey, is a certified personal trainer, as well as a member of both the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She also teaches a popular workshop, "Stretching for Both Ends of the Leash," and teaches "Handler Conditioning" classes at Jump Start Dog Sports in Yorba Linda, Calif. "The sport of agility, like any sport, does not come without risk," Snelleman says. "Most injuries occur either from improper use of the body over time, or from an acute event," she adds. "Agility handlers can greatly reduce this risk by doing general conditioning for themselves and their canine teammate. For people this should include cardiovascular, flexibility, and strength training."
'Oakie', a 6-year-old Pembroke Welsh Corgi, is a good example of how beneficial canine conditioning can be. He was suffering from pain in his hips when owner Mary Lynn Dawson, of Lake Geneva, Wis., brought him to TOPS Veterinary Rehab in Grayslake, Ill. Their first objective was to rehabilitate Oakie; second was to implement a preventive conditioning program. TOPS' medical director Laurie McCauley, DVM, says, "Our preventive conditioning program included strengthening the gluteal and hamstring muscles to keep his hips stable and enhance his ability to jump from the rear, strengthen his trunk muscles to prevent back injuries, stretching to enhance joint nutrition and increase proprioception (knowing where his feet are in space), and massage to decrease lactic acid accumulation in the muscles and find minor injuries before they become apparent." Lucky for Oakie...who went on to win the NADAC Nationals 8" Elite in 2002 and 2004.
"One of the attributes I look for in a canine athlete is strong trunk muscles, [which are] one of the most important areas to strengthen in the human athlete, and mostly ignored in the canine athlete," says McCauley. "I also want strong hamstrings and gluteal muscles for jumping, strong triceps for pulling with the front limbs, and proper body structure -- something we can't change!" In addition to routine conditioning, McCauley recommends stretching and quick warm-up sessions a few minutes before going into the ring, a short massage afterwards, monthly chiropractic sessions during the competitive season, and quarterly adjustments in the off season.
Sarah Johnson, PT, of K9 Fit N Fun in San Anselmo, Calif., can personally attest to keeping both teammates in optimal condition. An athlete all her life, Johnson had reconstructive knee surgery in 1977, years before starting agility. She has virtually no ligaments in that knee, and runs agility in a knee brace. She keeps herself in shape with a regular routine that includes interval and sprint training that reduces wear and tear to her joints. Her Border Collie, Cruiser, has benefited from Johnson's keen understanding of the value of preventive conditioning.
Last year, 9-year-old Cruiser achieved her AKC MACH, a USDAA Bronze Lifetime Achievement Award, and became the oldest dog in any category to qualify and place in the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge. Now 10, Cruiser recently took first place at the 2004 USDAA Championships in the Veterans 16" class. Johnson, who accompanied the AKC World Team to France in 2003 as the team's fitness consultant, says, "Educating people about how to prevent injury, both to themselves and their canine partner, is my passion." To that end, Johnson is completing a course of study in canine rehabilitation at the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine, where extensive research in that field. Her goal is to team up with a veterinarian to produce a DVD for handlers to become better educated about general conditioning for their canine teammates. "Many handlers don't know appropriate stretching techniques for themselves, and that often applies to their dogs as well," she says.
McCauley concurs: "Can you imagine the Olympics without the athletes stretching before competing? Stretching moves the fluid in the joint to cover the cartilage with rich nutrients. It also stimulates the proprioceptive nerve endings in the joint capsule to make the dog more aware of its fee in space. This can help decrease the incidence of slipping off obstacles, knocking bars, and hitting contacts," she says. "Massage gives the handler a chance to feel if spasms, tenderness, or excessive muscle tightness are present, as well as to increase circulation and decrease lactic acid accumulation in the muscle tissue." McCauley shares the following tips:
If your dog has been conditioned well, she will move more freely, knock fewer bars, and show fewer refusals. Then, when faults occur or if your dog suddenly slows down, you know it's time to see your veterinarian to assess whether there's a muscle injury or weakness that needs to be addressed.
Appropriate exercises, strengthening equipment (like the underwater treadmill), and knowledge of biomechanics and neuromuscular training are taking the sport to a new height. Find a qualified professional to work with you and your canine athlete.
Lucky for those of us addicted to agility, more and more professionals are specializing in agility fitness programs for both human and canines. After receiving veterinary clearance for Sarah, Fenoglio embarked on a conditioning program supervised by Snelleman. "I can't believe the difference in my performance in the ring," says Fenoglio. "And Sarah and I are no longer incapacitated after a trial!"