If you have ever had a dog injured and unable to train, show, play or hike with you, you understand the importance of helping to prevent injuries or injury flare-ups in your dog.
Agility dogs are asked to run fast, make tight turns, twist, change directions quickly, climb and descend at speed. Yet how many times do you see agility dogs taken out of their crates and perhaps put over a jump a few times before they go into the ring. They run the course performing these amazing jumps, climbs, descends and turns and then are often taken back to their crates to wait for another run without a proper cool-down.
Not only do I see this at shows but so often even at seminars when frequently there has not even been a warm-up jump. What about training sessions? How many people spend their time warming up their dog’s muscles prior to beginning any agility work?
Obedience is not as hard on the dogs yet we are asking them to focus on us, be attentive, run to us for recalls, and take jumps in both Open and Utility classes. Do these dogs get a proper warm-up both physically and mentally?
The Importance of Warm-Up
It is now widely accepted that warming up our dogs for training, showing or performance helps to reduce the risk of injury to muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints. Kaffee, for example, suffered the debilitating iliopsoas injury by just chasing a ball at an agility competition. He is such a good example of a performance dog that had not been properly conditioned with a balanced exercise program that included strength training targeting his front and back limbs, core body work, proprioception, stretching and flexibility. Then to top this off, he was brought out of his crate and just started his chasing the ball play.
I refer you to my two earlier blog writings on conditioning the canine athlete… what I have learned, what experts like Christine Zink recommend as well as the extensive use of balance discs to provide core strength, proprioception, balance, and flexibility. This writing and the accompanying videos show what I have learned and always use to properly warm up my dogs before training and shows.
Extensive research with human athletes has provided knowledge about the importance of heating muscle tissue slowly via activity-based warm-ups. This exercise helps to improve muscle and tendon extensibility and reduces the susceptibility to injury: the more flexible the tissue, the less likely it is to be strained and torn. For more information see the article by Jennell Appel, DVM, CCRT at http://www.patburnsretrievertraining.com/uploads/3/2/4/3/3243402/canine-athlete-warmup-cooldown.pdf
As Jennell points out in her article, there is no one perfect protocol for warming up a dog. However there are guidelines that we can use to formulate our plan for our dogs. The most important consideration is creating a warm-up where our dogs are asked to do what will be required of their bodies in the performance task we are doing with them. As you might realize, agility is far more strenuous to prepare our dogs for than obedience. Below are the guidelines that I have come up with from readings, courses I have taken on canine conditioning and preventing injuries by numerous experts in the field. I use these guidelines every time I work with my dogs, often modifying them due to time available and what activity they are doing but always keeping in mind the principle of adequately preparing their muscles, joints and ligaments by a slow warm-up.
Slowly Warming Up the Body
It is very important to slowly increase blood circulation in the warm-up period. Back on Track dog blankets are excellent to keep muscles loose and supple before and after events. These blankets help to prevent injuries as well as helping to speed up recovery time after an injury. The Back on Track dog blankets, both the light weight mesh and regular, are made from a special polyester fibers with ceramic particles that radiate heat back toward the body producing gentle warmth.
Even when temperatures are not extremely cold, dogs benefit from the use of the lighter weight mesh blanket. I put this blanket on my dogs as soon as we get to the show or even in the car on the ride to the show site when temperatures begin to get cool. When we get to the show grounds, I take Kaffee and Myst for a 15-20 minute walk to not only get them slowly warmed up but also to help familiarize them with the noises, smells and excitement of the show area. I find these walks also help relax them considerably while slowing warming them up.
Obedience Warm-up for the Mind and Body --- a Fun Time
My obedience warm-up next consists of having my dogs further warm-up their bodies and minds which also helps them to relax and have fun. After doing agility with Kaffee I learned that I could transfer the tug and play that we did in agility to my obedience work to help him associate obedience with fun, play and great treats.
Using high value treats that are only used for obedience work makes our obedience practice and showing associated with a time for awesome treats and a positive experience.
Both my Border Collies love to tug and play ball. I have incorporated this fun interaction with me into all we do in obedience. We use tugging to help warm-up their bodies slowly as you will see in the video. I am very careful of how I use the ball especially with Kaffee with his old iliopsoas injury. I do not have him chase the ball or go and get it until he is sufficiently warmed up and the ball is NOT moving. I do very little ball chasing with Kaffee since this is how he got injured and how dogs can easily get injured by chasing balls.
Bobby Lyons offered an online class on Iliopsoas Prevention and Treatment and gave some excellent warm-up exercises prior to working a dog. The list below was taken from this class. I try to incorporate most of this work into all of our warm-ups. The video below will show much of this being done with Kaffee while also using his favorite utter tug toy.
1. Warm up spine: nose to hip both sides
2. Rights and left (circles and spins)
3. Moving weave through legs
4. Moving turn right left weave
5. Backing up (warm up and cool down)
6. At side circles right and left
7. Weave to circles and spins
8. Moving forward: DOWN > STAND
9. Stand to CONCERTINA DOWN to stand
10. Sit pretty or sit and bring nose up keeping spine straight
11. Again, weave into turn right and left
12. Stretching rear legs. I look for something that they can put their rear legs on and then ask them to stretch forward and hold the stretch.
After they have warmed up with the above exercises made into fun play, I will then do some heeling or other obedience exercise work. I bring jumps (broad, high and bar jump) to the shows to use to further warm them up closer to when they will go into the ring for the class where they would use these jumps.
I never let my dogs jump without some warm-up even in obedience. Since Kaffee is almost 10 years old and still must jump 20 inches in obedience, I do not jump him at full height between shows. I may put the obedience jumps at 12-16 inches but seldom at full height. The week before the show I start conditioning his jumping by using jumping grids and Susan Salo’s one jump with a stride regulator. I also use the stride regulator before the jumps in the obedience ring to practice and help Kaffee with correct striding.
Warming Up the Agility Dog
After walking the dog for 15+ minutes I like to do a massage on the major muscle groups that the dog is going to use: shoulder, neck, triceps, all the large muscle groups of the back legs. An excellent video to help you learn how to massage your dog was produced by Dr. Cindy DiFranco, “Ultimate Guide to Massaging Your Dog”
Following the massage we begin to do some tugging and tricks to further warm-up. Myst is able to do more warm-up type tricks than Kaffee. She loves to do her sit pretty, pretty to tall, bow, leg weaves and passes, circles and spins, backing up to down.
Now we are ready for some jumping warm-up with a practice jump. See the accompanying video below.
Cool Down Time
It is very easy to forget that after exercise it is very important to cool down our dogs and help prevent injury and muscle tightness and soreness. Lactic acid accumulation is a primary component of muscle fatigue and soreness. When muscles, tendons and ligaments are fatigued and tight, the risk for injury increases. This is where a proper cool down becomes so important.
For me this time is a time to reward the dog for their work and effort with me in the show or practice ring as well as cooling down their bodies and helping to prevent tight muscle. For shows I have a tug/treat toy that I put the awesome high value treats in. My dogs know where this is waiting for them when they come out of the ring and they enthusiastically go to its location. I also like to play with them when they finish. This provides a gradual time to cool down but also reward them again and make the competition or practice associated with a fun time.
The gradual cool down might involve tugging and playing but also walking and if possible stretching to reduce the lactic acid accumulation in muscles, joints and ligaments. We know from human athletes that the greatest gains in flexibility are made after muscles/tendons and ligaments are properly warmed up and stretching occurs on a regular basis.
I use the canine conditioning equipment from FitPaws to help both my dogs regularly stretch and stay flexible. Sometimes I take a small disc with me to shows to help use to warm up my dogs as well as finding a place where they can stretch out as you will see in my video.
If the weather is at all cool, I immediately put on their Back on Track blankets. I have both the mesh for warmer weather and the regular for cold days. These excellent Back on Track blankets help in the cool down process by keeping the muscles warm, loose and supple not only before events but following. I have had dogs tighten up and be very stiff after a working in agility followed by a car ride without proper cool down. Using the Back on Track blankets/coats has helped to prevent this stiffness. I also use these blankets following hikes and runs in cold weather when again, they are warm and may have high lactic acid levels from a lot of running and playing.
Knowledge about proper warm-up and cool-down is so very important for keeping your dog healthy and sound so you both can do the sports and activities that you enjoy together. HAVE FUN!!
Again, I refer you to the excellent article by Janell Appeal who has been involved in the field of canine rehabilitation and canine athletics since 2002.