It’s Dog Agility Blog Action Day and the topic is “Outside the Ring”. Unshockingly, it’s given me a reason to rant. I rant a lot. But, well, why the hell else have a blog, amirite?
I have ended up annoyed at just about every agility event I’ve ever gone to. There’s usually a number of little things that have made me shake my head, but I think the worst offender is seeing poorly conditioned dogs.
I’m going to reveal something that may not have occurred to you. I say that because there are people out there competing every chance they get, weekend after weekend, just so that they can score titles that I don’t think have fully embraced this concept: agility is a physical activity. Not just for the poor handler running around like a chicken with their head cut off, but for their dog as well.
There is no organization that I know of where the course requirements are so easy that you can get away without conditioning your dog properly without risking serious injury to your friend. They are jumping (and small jumps have the potential to hurt just as much as the big ones), slamming down on teeters, trying their hardest to turn even when we have bad timing, running for multiple courses a day, flinging themselves over a-frames, etc etc.
What do you do to condition your dogs? Be honest, because dumping them in your backyard doesn’t count. You know what I do? We go for hikes where they can run and jump over uneven terrain, which is the best way for them to figure out how to use their bodies as they twist and turn on course. We go swimming—the best lo-impact activity there is. We play fetch, and do so with them running up a gently sloping hill whenever possible. All this outdoor stuff happens for an hour. Maybe much longer than an hour depending on the activity and weather. We walk up and down the stairwell in my building (all 13 flights) when it’s too icy outside. We work on balancing balls and specific tricks to improve their balance, coordination, and even endurance. On one or two days a week we go for long leash walks (read: 1.5 to 2 or more hours), especially the day after a trial so that their muscles can gently stretch out and their circulation can get pumping to help repair any damage from the day before.
Think about it, physical activity almost always involves some damage. The more you use your muscles the more things are strained, pulled, compressed, inflamed. The same is true of your dog. It doesn’t matter if you’re not trying out for a world team. If you are going to walk into an agility ring, and I don’t give a shit if you’ve double dropped your 22″ dog down to 10″, they need to be fit to do it safely. Period. End of story.
Fitness happens primarily away from equipment, in the types of exercise I just mentioned, and many more. You can use jump grids as well to help develop those muscles your dog needs to jump efficiently and safely (there is a new book out by Susan Salo that I am excited to get myself, which should give you lots of good info). Learn how to stretch your dog safely. Your dog should be on the appropriate diet and taking supplements to make sure the impact of agility is mitigated as much as possible. And if you’ve been at agility for any length of time you should be looking into some form of physiotherapy to make sure there are no hidden aches.
And your dog should not be over weight. I shouldn’t need to say it but holy hell every trial I see fat dogs jumping. I’ll often see fat dogs with what looks like bad joints or some other problem jumping, and I die inside every time I do. Do you know what you do if you can’t exercise your dog enough to keep the weight off? YOU FEED HIM LESS FOOD. But you have to ask yourself: if you can’t get your dog exercised enough to maintain a healthy weight, how in the world do you have time to practice agility enough to prepare your dog for all the other challenges they will find in the ring? Maybe skip a practice and go for a hike instead. Throw in a few wraps around some trees or garbage cans if your desperate to practice. If your dog has a physical issue that prevents you from exercising it enough to keep the weight off then it DEFINITELY doesn’t belong in the agility ring. At all. At any height. Not even in a hoopers or tunnelers class. Save your poor dog’s body for romps in the woods where it will likely have more fun.
I mentioned in a previous post the idea that it would be great if in order to compete it should be mandatory that a vet assess the dog so that its structure, not just whither height, was taken into account when assigning jump heights. I’d like to add to that. There should be a penalty for trialling an overweight dog. As far as I’m concerned it’s basically abuse. It drives me nuts and it just shouldn’t be an issue in the sports world.
There are a lot of other things I could talk about. Like warming up your dogs. (Another thing people don’t do, or don’t do for long enough, and really should.) Start line routines, warm up routines (besides getting the dog physically ready). But if I did talk about all that stuff I’d basically have written a book by the time I’m done. So instead head on over and read the other Dog Agility Bloggers’ take on this topic, because I’m certain at least one of them will have touched on all that stuff and more.
Now go take your dog for a hike.