Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Fitness in our agility dogs.

Watching runs this weekend at the trial it was my perception that a lot of the "little dogs" say 12" and smaller were struggling with the a-frame - I noticed this on both Saturday and Sunday - in excellent (A and B), open and novice dogs. The 16" and above crew didn't seem to have any obvious changes in a-frame performance, but in the span of two days I observed more a-frame scrambles and struggles than I've seen in a long time - maybe ever. Yet many of these same dogs were out there competing in January and February and weren't struggling at all. What changed between then and now?

I think this is one of the disadvantages to the year-round trial season in New England. Even as recently as two years ago there just weren't winter trials. We didn't have the facilities in New England to hold trials in the winter - dog clubs can't compete with soccer leagues in terms of facility rentals ($$$). So after the November cluster dogs more or less had the winter off from trialing. Probably training through the winter, but not trialing. Now we're asking our dogs to be out there all winter but are we conditioning them the way we do in the spring, summer and fall? It's cold, it's dark and the little guys just can't hold body heat the way the bigger dogs can (regardless of coat). It feels like everything is harder in the winter. I'm sure that dogs of all sizes were working harder on course, but it was the little guys that were so obvious. That A-frame is a mountain!

Are we warming up and cooling out our dogs the same way we do at outdoor summer shows with lots of available space? Some of the winter venues are so tightly cramped that they don't even offer a warm-up jump. We take our dogs out of their crates or our cars and work stationary stretching or limited movement games. Then we run the course and the dogs are more often than not put right back into their crates or our cars until the next run.

It's tempting to think that training is exercise. That an hour of class once a week is getting the dog out and worked and keep them in condition. Maybe even that trialing is both exercise and conditioning. Those little dogs on the a-frames this weekend made it through November and December with carry-over conditioning, but now that we're in March that carry-over is gone and scaling a 5'6" a-frame is a herculean effort for an 8" dog.

Listen, I know what it's like to live in Vermont in the winter. I juggle darkness and cold and bad footing (ice is slippery, but also cuts pads), but in fairness to our dogs we've got to make it happen - or make sure that we as handlers ask them fairer questions on the weekend. For December, January and February I'm out almost every night in the cold and dark getting the dogs out to do something. It might not be the 45 minutes I aim for in the spring and fall - or the multiple hours of swimming they get daily in the summer - but it's 20 minutes of something - even if that's throwing a ball indoors at the training center, hill work next to a lighted parking lot or a bit of lunging in the street under a street light. Sure, I'd give my eye teeth for an endless pool in my basement - or a dog-sized treadmill (my treadmill has a 60" belt that just doesn't cut it for big dogs) but I've got to make do with what I have for resources.

I haven't trialed a lot this winter - but when I have, I've worked hard to make a deliberate warm-up and cool down effort for both myself and for Teller. It's not just going out for potty, it's out there taking a bit of a walk, lunging him a bit at a trot in either direction, then going inside to stretch and get ready to run. This usually means that I do my course walks during the obsessive walk-through or I'll warm him almost all the way up and "park" him for 5 minutes while I walk the course, then resume the warm-up process, stretching and engaging him.

In my mind, a cool-out process is equally important and my routine here goes back to my life with horses. I'll bring him back to the car after his run (and ring-side cookies), quickly change my shoes (particularly during mud season), put on my own coat, hat, etc, offer him a small drink of water, change from his slip-lead to his collar and flexi. I'll usually get Murphy at the same time and we go walk (for Teller that's walk-trot-canter) under his own steam - for at least 20 minutes before they go back in their crates to wait for the next class. For my own purposes, if it's too cold to do a proper warm-up and cool down it's too cold to trial and it's not worth risking an injury to my dogs to go for a leg.

There's light (literally and figuratively) at the end of the tunnel now - it's actually light when I leave work and days like yesterday (50 degrees) when I can get them both out on real turf, play 45 minutes of ball, bumpers, chase, romp, wait and recall. Sure, I loaded two grey golden retrievers into the car and then bathed (conditioned and blow dried) both of them when we got home, then ran three loads of laundry (bedding from the car and two loads of towels). But after so much time just hanging around in the car and crates this weekend they needed to get out and be dogs. In the end, I had two soggy but very happy and very tired golden retrievers...It was worth it.

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