Practice is the best of all instructors. -Publis Syrus
A wise friend told me many years ago, that if I wanted to get good at conditioning dogs that I needed to condition many dogs. The reason for this is simple. You can research and mimic all the programs ever written and get as much advice from the experts as you can, but until you get the firsthand experience that comes from putting in the work yourself, you will never be good at putting a dog into shape. Making mistakes and dealing with problems is a critical part of any learning process. A training program is no different. As with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. With careful planning and paying close attention to your animal you can get ahead of most problems before they happen. From time to time no matter how careful you are problems will arise. How you handle them can mean the difference between winning and losing. I will cover some of the more common problems I notice many people make.
A very common mistake is not allocating enough time for the program. Many try to cram a training camp into 6 weeks. In my experience, a minimum of 10 weeks is needed to get dog into peak shape. It is very difficult to get a dog perfect in 6 weeks. With a 6 week camp, the dog only gets 3-4 weeks of hard work at best. The dog is not ready for hard work the first few weeks of the camp. If you work the dog too hard the first few weeks you will likely deal with pad issues, sore or pulled muscles and/or mental fatigue. All of which will set the dog back from reaching peak condition. The last week of any training program should consist of very light work that does not do much in terms of achieving optimal conditioning. This is to ensure that the dog is fully recovered, fresh and ready for competition. By allocating enough time for the training program not only does the dog have plenty of time to safely reach peak conditioning, the dog also has enough time to overcome any problems that may arise during that time. Don’t short change yourself or your dog by not allowing enough time for a proper training camp.
Pay close attention to your animal. This may seem like common sense, but there’s a reason for the saying ‘common sense is not so common.’ By the time your dog is ready for a training camp, you should have gotten to know the dog well. You should know the dogs habits and how they behave in their everyday life. Many people blindly go through their day without paying attention to the small nuisances and details of their dog. By paying close attention you can pick up on small clues that will give you information about how your dog is feeling. Clues that most do not even notice. Our dogs can not verbally communicate with us, but they most assuredly can communicate with us. The problem is, most of us do not listen to them. Not every dog is the same, yet many people apply the same concepts and theories to every dog. This is a mistake. It’s setting yourself and the dog up for failure. And when the dogs fails, guess who gets the blame. The dog. Yet, it is our responsibility to manage our dogs to maximize their potential. That means putting them in a position to succeed. Too many dogs have the odds stacked against them by lazy or ignorant owners.What works for one dog, might not work for the next dog. It is our job to know what our dogs do best and work them accordingly. There are many ways to skin a cat. Too many people start a out with a dog who has never been taught to really work. The dog is forced to learn how to work when the outcome of winning and losing is on the line. There is a learning curve for both the conditioner and the dog during a training camp. This is not the time for you nor the dog to be learning. Before you deem this dog ready for competition, you should have put him through a practice camp to work. If your dog is not ready to work then he is not ready to be shown. Otherwise you are flying blind and setting yourself and the dog up for failure. Always run a practice camp of at least 5-6 weeks on your prospect prior to competition. This is a valuable time to learn about your dog and experiment with different training methods. It is also critical to the dogs mental and physical development. When the time comes for the real camp, both the conditioner and the dog will be prepared to be as efficient as possible. I’ve seen far too many people attempt to condition a dog who has never been on a mill, yet they are trying to teach the dog how to run the mill during the real camp. This is a very inefficient use of time. The result is usually a half-ass work out during a critical time in the training camp. Meanwhile, a dog that has been through a practice camp or two is ahead of the game and ready to put in good hard work because of his previous experiences. Never experiment or try to learn when the show is on the line. Be prepared and get everything worked out prior to the show.
Despite being prepared and proactive, from time to time issues outside of your control are bound to pop up. How you deal with them will often mean the difference between winning and losing. One small problem in and of itself usually does not cost you the win. It is usually the accumulation of multiple small issues and mistakes that cost you. Combined, they are too much for the dog to overcome. When issues arise, act swiftly. Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today.
Quality over quantity. It is far more important to get quality workouts from your dog than it is how long the actual workout takes. There are many variables that will determine how much work is enough for each dog. Some dogs work harder than others. Some days the temperature is very hot or humid. Some days the temperature is perfect. Dogs have bad days too and some days they might not feel up to giving their best effort. Other days, they might be feeling extra good and you can get a little more work out of them than you planned. It seems half of the people I watch condition dogs either slack too much or they work their dogs too much. There is a fine line between under working your dog and over working your dog. It takes a dog man to determine the proper amount of work each individual dog needs and when. Don’t just blindly follow a set time. Depending on how hard the dog works it may only be capable of working for 10-15 minutes even though the program calls for 20-25 minutes. Some people will push the dog to get 20-25 minutes of work in just because that is what the program calls for. By doing this they risk overworking or injuring the dog along with wasting time that could be better spent.I notice many people feed their dogs a sub-par diet most their life and then during the training camp try to overcompensate for that by feeding a higher quality kibble and adding a bunch of supplements. They may even use steroids. This coupled with an increased work load is hard on the dogs organs and body. It stresses their immune system and most do not even notice it. You should always feed your dog a high quality diet from birth. The best you can feed is a proper raw diet. I don’t care what anyone says, there will never be a kibble produced that can achieve what nature intended for a dog to eat. A properly fed dog from birth will have a head start over a dog who has been fed a sub-par diet. Alone, it will not usually in and of itself make the difference between winning and losing but it will give you another small edge. It’s those small edges that you want to stack in your dog’s favor. My training camp feed changes very little from my everyday feed. There is no reason that is should be vastly different. You can’t make up for feeding crappy nutrition for 2-3 years by feeding better food for only 6-10 weeks.
Rest is often over looked yet, arguably more important than the work itself. Have you ever seen a dog that arrives to the show looking flat? The conditioner will say that they do not know what happened. The dog worked great during the training camp. The dog looked better before he was put though a camp. Most times this is because the dog was worked too hard for too long. There is a huge difference between bringing a dog in when he is in the “zone” versus when he is feeling flat and over-worked. It is very important to find the proper work/rest balance and to be able to identify the clues that suggest that your dog needs more rest.
In the end, there are no secret tricks that will transform you overnight into becoming a great conditioner. You must develop a plan but be smart enough to adjust that plan based on the results you are getting. Be dedicated and learn what schedule works best for you. Figure out what exercises work best for each individual dog you are conditioning. Work as many dogs are you can. Mistakes are going to happen. We are human. It is how we deal with them when they arise and how we learn from them that will determine how good of a conditioner that we will become.