I routinely hear people comment on a dog’s level of conditioning by merely observing a dog’s physical appearance. This is a common mistake many people make. It is impossible to measure a dog’s cardiovascular condition by simply looking at them. Cardiovascular conditioning results in a heart that has an improved capacity for work. We need to realize that there is a distinct difference between ‘looking good’ for a conformation show and being in working shape.
There are major differences in conditioning for conformation versus conditioning for work. Conditioning for conformation is much easier. It is similar to breeding for looks rather than working prowess. When conditioning for conformation, all that matters is how the dog looks. Most novices can bring a dog into a show looking half way decent without much effort. Simply increasing the dogs exercise and cutting back their normal feed will do the trick. You just have to know what you are looking at and maintain the look most conformation judges like. You need to be observant enough to make increases/decreases to the work/feed to arrive at the look you desire, but it really isn’t that complicated. Some dogs will look a lot better than others even though they are getting the same work and the same feed. Why? Genetics. Just like some humans seem to be able to eat anything they want and never exercise and still stay slim, some dogs are the same way. On the contrary, some people can closely watch what they eat and workout constantly, and they still carry extra weight. However, just because a guy has ripped abdominal muscles does not mean they are in great cardiovascular shape and can run a marathon. It just means they have low body fat and good genetics. A prime example of this is the Mixed Martial Artist Roy ‘Big Country’ Nelson. Roy Nelson sports a huge belly and from outward appearance looks fat and out of shape. However, if you have ever seen him fight, you would know this is not the case. He is living proof that looks can be deceiving!
Conditioning for work is much more difficult and takes a lot more practice. When conditioning for work, looks aren’t important. What is important is whether or not your dog has the strength, stamina and mental ability to perform the physical task at hand. Working dogs cannot get by on looks. No matter if they are hunting, racing doing agility or competing in the Iditarod, a working dog must be properly conditioned in order to succeed.
The most important aspect of conditioning for most working dogs is cardiovascular conditioning. Obviously this doesn’t apply to weight pull or other work that involves high output exertion over a short period of time. In order to keep things simple we will go over some training methods to develop and improve on cardiovascular endurance. The logic is simple. If the dog can’t breathe, it can’t work. If it can’t work, it’s impossible for it to accomplish its job.
HANDWALKING: The benefits of simple hand walking are countless. Many people say hand walking is a waste of time but I wholeheartedly disagree. One of the most important benefits of hand walking is the bond that takes place between the dog and its trainer. Hand walking also builds muscle endurance and provides mental stimulation that the slat mill lacks. I’ve seen many dogs get bored and lazy on the slat mill. There is so much for the dog to check out and take in while hand walking. The different smells, cars passing by, wildlife, etc. all provide great stimulation. When the dog gets used to his route, you simply start walking him on a different route and everything is new and exciting for the dog. I have about 3 or 4 different routes I use when putting my dogs in shape. Another way to spice up hand walking is to have a friend join you. Have them walk a dog about 50 feet in front of you. Your dog will likely pull the entire walk trying to catch up to your friends’ dog. That is an excellent workout for both you and your dog!
SLAT MILL: The slat mill is probably the most popular and widely used tool for building cardiovascular endurance. Slat mills are convenient as they can be used in any weather. Modern day slat mills such as the Dog Trotter are small, portable and quiet. A slat mill allows you to run your dog without leaving your home. The slat mill is powered by your dog, not a motor like on human treadmills. This provides a relatively safe and extremely convenient form of exercise for your dog. You can still achieve top condition without using a slat mill, but it will require a lot more work on the trainer’s behalf.
FLIRT POLE: The flirt pole is my favorite tool to put a dog into top condition. A flirt pole is a simple tool that just about anyone can make themselves. It is basically a stick with a rope attached to it. At the end of the rope you attach a teaser (most often a small piece of cowhide). To use it, you basically play keep away with the dog. The dog will intensely chase the hide as you move it out of his reach. This gives the dog a very intense workout in a short period of time. The dogs prey drive propels the dog to give maximum effort which in turns quickly raises the heart rate. That being said, this is not a tool for everyone. You have to be very careful as you can easily overwork your dog. As you and your dog get better using the flirt pole you can add jumps, resistance (weight vest/collar, etc) and you can even use it as a tug-o-war tool.
SPRINGPOLE: The spring pole is a very popular conditioning device today. It is basically a spring or heavy duty bungee cord with a rope or a piece of cowhide attached to the end. You hang the spring pole from a tree and let the dog play tug-o-war against the spring/bungee cord. Some people prefer the dog to have all four feet on the ground while working the spring pole. Others raise the spring pole so that only the back feet are touching the ground while others raise it so high that the dog is completely suspended in the air. The spring pole will provide muscular endurance, cardiovascular endurance and mental stimulation. The reason I prefer the Flirt Pole over the Spring Pole is simply because it takes a much more coordinated dog to work the Flirt Pole. It also raises the heart rate higher, quicker.
BICYCLE: The bicycle is basically the poor man’s slat mill. If you do not have a slat mill, or you have a dog that won’t run a slat mill the bicycle will be your best friend. You can replicate the slat mill almost identically with a bicycle. However, you will work a lot harder on the bicycle and you run the risk of falling off! You can control the speed of the dogs work on the bicycle much like that of the slat mill.
SPRINTS: Sprint work is great provided you have a dog that will play fetch. You also need a safe area to train in or you run the risk of losing your dog or having an accident happen. Sprinting raises the heart rate, then as the dog trots back to you and waits for you to throw the bait again the heart has a chance to recover. This is essentially the equivalent of interval training in humans. Interval training has been proven to improve aerobic capacity and increase fat loss.
SWIMMING: Swimming is a great conditioning tool provided you have a dog that likes to swim and you live in an area where swimming is an option. Swimming provides a total body workout without putting stress on the dogs’ joints or ligaments. If you have a dog with joint trouble, this may be your go to exercise. I’m not sure how this was measured, but the Canine Fitness Center in Maryland states that a 5 minute swim is the cardio equivalent of a five mile walk.
DRAGGING CHAINS: Having your dog drag chains is a good way to build strength and muscle endurance. In order to safely drag chains you will need to be sure you have a nice dirt trail or grass lot. Dragging chains on asphalt can be very hard on the dogs’ pads. Some people like to attach the chains directly to the collar. I don’t like the idea of adding a lot of weight and stress to the dogs’ neck. So I attach a harness to the dog and then attach a tracer to the harness. On strength days I will put some chains in my back pack, and take my dog on its normal hand walking session. Part way through the walk, I will attach the chains and have the dog drag the chains for a while. When I feel like the dogs had enough, I’ll throw the chains back in my back pack and finish the hand walking.The above are just a few of the many techniques you can use to put your dog in top working condition. To be clear, this is not a knock against conformation shows. The purpose of this article is to merely remind everyone that there is only one way to truly test conditioning and that is during physical work or competition. Always remember, looks can be deceiving!