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The Sporting Canine

The Sporting Canine

(First printed in AKC Gazette)

“What a great piece of work, the dog made it look so easy!” How often have we heard these words when a dog wins a competition? A casual tip Ian Openshaw (a top British professional), once gave me has stuck,  “If you haven’t prepared for every eventuality, then you have not fully prepared. You cannot depend on luck.” In the world of the sporting dog and with the level we expect them to rise to, there is little room for luck. Good dogs and handlers make their own ‘luck’ through hard work and preparation prior to an event.  There is no doubt if you and your dog are not prepared for all aspects of what you may be faced with, you put yourselves at a serious disadvantage.

Training and fitness for top performance have to go together whatever field pastime or event you are involved in. Take away one or the other  of these and your success rate is again dramatically reduced. Remember also that the preparation days are not just for your dog but also for yourself – remember when you are in the “Heat of Battle” with nerves pulling out every emotion associated with competition, unless you are habitual in your everyday training, on the big day you could easily be the weak link in the partnership.

So often owners will leave fitness and training to the last minute, hoping that a concentrated regime in the few weeks, sometimes days, before going into the field will be enough. It will not. We have all witnessed dogs in competitions who  are  over weight, physically unfit, lame from injury, cuts and abrasions,  have matted hair between their pads, and dirty ears. No dog should be expected to perform at its best with any of these  conditions. A regular  check up by yourself and your vet is advisable  to ensure you have a sound physical foundation from which to build.
Like us, food is the fuel source upon which dogs build, develop and perform. The quality of food and what suits your dog are two factors which should determine your decision on what and how to feed. The best indicator being  the condition of your dog. With a good quality food there should not be any need for supplementation of vitamins and minerals.  Although I have to admit with some dogs I have been  known to add the odd capsule of vitamin E all during the working season mostly to help repair strained muscles. Some dogs are good ‘doers’ requiring less food than others to maintain good condition, others needing more food as they require more calories to feed a higher metabolic rate. Out of season  I feed a maintenance food, then two months before the start of the season, when training  and especially conditioning begins, I switch to a high grade performance food. Personally, I  prefer to maintain feeding the same quantities year round and therefore will vary the quality of food with regard to protein and oil content, all depending  upon the work I expect my  dog to perform. I believe that  oil content, and  its ability to maintain energy levels, is an asset to scenting abilities of dogs. A tired brain and a tired  body make for a tired nose. I have found that the higher the ‘octane’ of food during peak performance that will keep a dog going and concentrating, the improved or longer lasting will its scenting abilities be. Prior to any competition,  if you want to feed,  give a much smaller quantity of food at least two hours before starting work.

In planning your conditioning and training program one of the first things to consider and ask yourself is what does the sport demand in physical requirements. What will your dog need to have in varying degrees of stamina, speed, resilience, agility, powerful drive to punch through heavy undergrowth, and strength, in his back,  shoulders, hind quarters, feet,  neck and mouth. In AKC competitive hunting dog trials, spaniels hunt for short times and  distances whereas pointers can run over long  distances for an hour or more. Retrievers run mostly in straight lines whereas lure coursers move their  bodies with every change in direction using balance and poise and  this ability of a good lure coursing dog to ‘flow’ can be a deciding factor in a competition. On the other hand Coon hounds have to be able to work in some very tough undergrowth and marshland where staying power and physical resilience is of paramount importance.

All potential circumstances in the field must be carefully thought about,  especially the demands of the activity your dog will have to face. The temperature, the humidity, the type of ground and cover, the game it has to handle. Acclimatization is essential and many owners who have their dogs with them in an air-conditioned house during the summer make the mistake of bringing them out to perform immediately in the cold waters of the north or   the heat the day. The shock to the system and their health is too dramatic and although many may feel guilty at using outside kennels or runs, this is often the only practical  way of acclimatizing and ‘toughening’ your dog.

Running, swimming, jumping and walking all develop physical fitness but you can also be creative with these exercises to develop your dog even further. Running together or behind a bicycle or ATV will enable you to do far longer distances with your dog and increase the speed and distances to more than you could possibly run. In all these instances always ensure that your dog has been taught to run alongside or behind and that you do it where it is safe to do so. Roy Pelton, who is a keen pointer man and weimeraner enthusiast is a great believer in ‘roading’ pointers. In ‘roading’ a special harness is fitted to the dog and it pulls increasing weights of chains as its strength and fitness grows. Similar to the special forces military who increase the weight of the packs on their backs as they run and increase their fitness. Steve Parish, Winner 1994 &1995 National Championships with his coonhounds also believes in ‘Roading’ but has a different twist to the method he uses. He has the dogs running in front of his 4 wheel ATV attached to harnesses where he can control the pulling and ‘digging in’  intensity of the dogs by how much he helps them move forward. He is adamant however that there is no substitute for hunting them through the swamps of Georgia, something he does three nights a week. “ Once they can take the heat, humidity, marsh, water and undergrowth of Georgia, everything else is easy” He told me with a smile.

One exercise which is very useful for owners who do not want to run or ride for a dog that enjoys retrieving is to develop the dog’s memory for a retrieve. Drop a dummy or a ball and walk a short distance away with the dog, turn around  and send the dog for the retrieve. The dog has now walked the same distance as yourself and  run twice that distance. By building up the memory it is easy to develop a memory retrieve of half a mile or even more. When walking downhill the dog will run the first half mile up hill. Where I once lived was close to the beach and the sand and sea was a great way of developing muscle and fitness. Memory retrieves along the beach and among the dunes quickly built up the tone of leg and stomach muscles. Another great way of getting a dog to use speed and body movement is to knock tennis balls with a tennis racket down a slight hill sending the dog the moment the ball bounces on the floor. The racket allows you to hit the ball further than you could throw it, the ball bouncing encourages the dog run faster and as it bounces down the hill it flicks from side to side leaving a trail and then finally rolling which the dog then has to follow. Different muscles are being employed running downhill to uphill and the movement of the ball encourages the dog to move its body from side to side creating balance and co-ordination.

Swimming is an excellent way of starting a fitness program as the water supports the body and muscles making the stress and impact on them much less. For dogs that retrieve, water retrieves can be used, for those that do not retrieve, encourage them to follow a rowing boat or take them for a swim in a swimming pool. Again some trainers will use a form of ‘roading’ in the swimming pool attaching a floatation device that drags behind their dog as it swims creating a resistance that requires more effort to move forward.

In training be creative and innovate. Agility through the upright poles can develop body movement in spaniels and coursing dogs. Jumping and walking along planks helps develop co-ordination and muscle for retrievers and terriers doing earth work would benefit by pushing through the tunnels and weaving the poles. There is no need to develop an agility course, teach your dog to jump over fences and low walls, go under low objects or through pipes, weave in between fence posts and walk along the top of walls. Spaniel trainer Gary Breitbarth trains his dogs to hunt quartering pattern around barrels which help develop their body action and balance in sharp turns.

Much of what you do during formal  training and actual work can increase the fitness of your dog. But there is no doubt that specialized exercise can be given to improve co-ordination, movement, balance, control weight, bring out the required muscular physique, reduce stress and especially build confidence and a feeling of well being in the dog.  It can help create a sense of purpose and determination. Any exercise training program however must  be progressive starting at a very easy level and gradually building to  optimum fitness.

In exercise and play (a great fun way of creating fitness) always remember that you do not want to change any of the well-trained habits you have worked hard at creating. Play and exercise can form part of training but even when it is not a formal part, you should still be in charge of the game, you should still be the focus of the dog’s activity or be able to gain the dogs focus anytime you wish. With some sports such as Beagling and  Coonhounds however there is no better ‘play’ than actually doing the work.

Too many times handlers concentrate on what the dog is good at and avoid the problem areas. The aim of any training regime at this time should be to maintain the good attributes of your dog while modifying, overcoming or eliminating the problematical ones. If we assume that your dog has been in training and has already reached a fair standard, the months leading up to any competition or field  event should be aimed at ‘polishing’ your dog. Creating  attentiveness, responsiveness,  willingness, understanding of  and prompt obedience to commands,   plus honing the natural inherent talents that your dog has to do the job with you. During this time a good owner/trainer should learn to read and understand  his individual dogs special qualities and weaknesses,  comfort zone, areas that need work and  individual idiosyncrasies. Your rapport and understanding must develop to such an extent that you become a team. By understanding the dog’s strengths and weaknesses, recognizing when and where they occur, a good handler can help the dog avoid those obstacles to performance, or guide the dog into the correct ways to provide the maximum performance that sets the dog apart from others. During all training sessions it is wise also to begin analyzing your own performance. When your dog goes wrong how much of it due to your mistakes through  pushing the dog too far, setting up impossible situations at the present level of performance, being inconsistent or communicating poorly.

Prior to any strenuous training, exercise or event have a short warm up period, a walk or a run to relieve pressure on the bladder. Give the dog the opportunity to loosen the muscles that might have become stiff through sitting or lying down.  Briefly massage the shoulders and rear hip areas (slow firm circular movements also running your hand against the hair of the dogs back) this often encourages the dog  to flex muscles and stretch. Teach your dog to stretch on cue. Warm up exercises should be short and  effective but not so much  they tire the brain or body. If your dog has to be tired to be controllable in competition your dog has not been prepared properly. After training, exercise or actual work it is  also necessary to cool down and relax your dog both physically and mentally and reduce the adrenalin rush. Free from distractions a short walk, a massage and a light drink of cool not cold water really helps your dog to unwind.

As fitness improves so will the drive and athleticism of your dog. It is important that you  are able to achieve and control the  balance between  responsiveness to commands and enthusiasm fuelled by a fit animal. Too much rigid correctional training can stifle style, drive and enthusiasm. Too little follow through or correction of errors and your dog will begin to make more mistakes. This is why leaving the ‘polishing’ until the days before the event is too late. Aim to have your dog at its optimum performance level  a week before an event not one day before. The week leading up to the event should be used to maintain  and reinforce that performance level. Two days before the event ‘tail off’ the amount of training and fitness work, and the day before just do a light day. Don’t forget either that grooming should not be neglected, the day before the competition provides you with the time and the opportunity. There is no doubt a bathed, well-groomed dog produces in him  a ‘feel good’ factor. So bath, groom,  clean ears, remove knots, and trim nails. In doing so the  socialization and relaxation will create a good mind and enhances the trust the dog has in you through being handled.

On the day of the ‘big event’ you should be prepared but in no hurry. To have to rush because you are short of time creates unnecessary stress for both of you which neither of you need. Spare towels, first aid pack, clean water, glucose tablets or energy bar, and spare handling equipment are all part of what constitutes your dogs necessary ‘travel’ pack. Water is essential, but never let your dog ‘tank up’ on a lot of water at any time. My first time at a spaniel event in America taught me a great tip, the handlers all carried a  squirt bottle on their belt and would give their dogs a short mouth wetting squirt whenever the opportunity presented itself. Not a lot, but enough to create hydration comfort and more important keep all those scenting and tasting areas moist. However, I added to this tip by mixing  a spoonful of glucose or honey to the  water in my bottle. I have only ever had one dog collapse of sugar deficiency created by hard work but it was enough for me to begin doing this. To maintain energy levels, a cool body will also be of benefit and the occasional dip into a pool or cattle trough will certainly help your dog release a lot of pent up heat.

In competition or in a demanding field situation you want to handle your dog as you would on any other day. Calm but concentrating, clear but relaxed, distractions tuned out and most of all do not allow your nerves before the event to make you do something with your dog that will destroy, albeit for a short time, the relationship and partnership you have created over weeks of hard work. Do not allow yourself to be distracted before, during or after your actual performance by anyone even Judges. Think ahead, be prepared, be polite and confident. Always remember your partner is your dog and is  your number one priority. Lack of attentiveness on your part leads to errors in your dog. In a tense handling situation when nerves are present, time seems to go faster than it actually does. When this occurs  react promptly but not hastily, take what you may feel is slightly more time and look relaxed. With the basis of good  preparation behind you, you know your dog, and you will be able to play your part with confidence.

Conditioning and training to meet the requirements of competition, events and the field takes time, effort, ability  and hard work but at the end you will have the satisfaction of knowing your successes were not just luck, but “ A good job well done ” through your own endeavours.