'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 dramatically reduced. Remember also that the preparation days are not just for your dog but also for yourself; 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.
Often owners will leave fitness and training to the last minute, hoping that a concentrated regimen 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 overweight, physically unfit, lame from injury, display cuts and abrasions, have matted hair between their pads, and are living with dirty ears. No dog with any of these conditions should be expected to perform at its best. A regular checkup by yourself and your veterinarian 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. Some dogs are good 'doers' requiring less food than most dogs to maintain good condition, others need 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 begin, I switch to a high grade performance food. Personally, I prefer to maintain feeding the same quantity year-round, and therefore will vary the quality of food with regard to protein and fat content, depending upon the work I expect my dog to perform. I believe that fat 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 during peak performance, the higher the 'octane' of food that will keep a dog going and concentrating, the better or longer-lasting will be his scenting abilities. Just prior to any competition, if you want to feed your dog, give a much smaller quantity of food at least two hours before starting to work.
Know the demands of your sport
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 the areas 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 American Kennel Club (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 during their trials. On the other hand, coonhounds 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 prepared for, especially the demands of whatever activity your dog will have to face. The temperature, humidity, type of ground and cover, and game he has to handle are all variables for which you need to plan. 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 of 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 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 is great, but having your dog run behind a bicycle will enable you to do far longer distances with your dog, distances much farther than you could possibly run. Always ensure that your dog has been taught to run alongside or behind your bicycle, and exercise where it is safe. Steve Parish, who has Coonhounds, and was the winner of the 1994 and 1995 National Championships is adamant that no running exercises can substitute for hunting the dogs 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 retrieving dogs whose owners do not want to run or ride, is developing 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. Once the dog has brought back the retrieve, he has walked the same distance as yourself, plus 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.
I once lived close to the beach, and the sand and sea were great ways of developing muscle and fitness. Memory retrieves along the beach and among the dunes quickly built up the tone of the legs 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 ground. The racket allows you to hit the ball further than you could throw it, the bouncing ball encourages the dog to run faster, and the side to side movement of the ball as it bounces and rolls down the hill leaves a trail, which the dog then has to follow. Different muscles are employed running downhill versus uphill, and the movement of the ball encourages the dog to move his body from side to side thus improving balance and coordination.
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 to entice the dog to swim; for those that do not retrieve, encourage them to follow a rowing boat or take them for a swim in a swimming pool. Some trainers will attach a floatation device that drags behind their dog as he swims, creating a resistance that requires more effort to move forward.
In training, be creative and innovate. Agility training through having your dog run between upright poles can develop body movement in spaniels and coursing dogs. Jumping and walking along planks helps develop coordination and muscle for retrievers. Terriers 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 using a quartering pattern around barrels which helps 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 improve coordination, movement, and balance; control weight; bring out the required muscular physique; reduce stress; and build confidence and a feeling of well-being in the dog. It can help your dog develop 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 dog's focus anytime you wish.
Work on problem areas
Many times handlers concentrate on what the dog is good at and avoid the problem areas. The aim of any training regimen should be to maintain the good attributes of your dog while modifying, overcoming, or eliminating the problematic 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 focused on 'polishing' your dog. This improves attentiveness, responsiveness, willingness, understanding of and prompt obedience to commands, plus hones the natural inherent talents that your dog has to do the job with you. During this time, a good individual dog's special qualities and weaknesses, comfort zone, areas that need work and individual idiosyncrasies can be worked on. Your rapport and understanding must develop to such an extent that you and your dog become a team. By understanding the dog's strengths and weaknesses, and 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 also wise to analyze your own performance. When your dog goes wrong, how much of it is due to your mistakes of pushing the dog too far, setting up impossible situations at the dog's present level of performance, being inconsistent, or poorly communicating?
Warm-ups and cool-downs
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) and run your hands up and down against the hair of the dog's 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 and not 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 adrenaline 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 fueled 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 few days before the event is too late. Aim to have your dog at his 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. Do not neglect grooming; the day before the competition provides you with the time and the opportunity to 'brush up' on that aspect. There is no doubt that being bathed, and well-groomed produces a 'feel good' factor in your dog. So bathe, groom, clean ears, remove knots, and trim nails. In doing so, the socialization and relaxation will create a good frame of mind and enhance the trust the dog has in you.
The big day
On the day of the 'big event' you should be prepared and not in a hurry. Rushing because you are short of time creates unnecessary stress for both you and your dog, and neither one of you needs that. You should have a 'travel pack' ready for your dog which includes spare towels, first aid pack, clean water, glucose tablets or energy bar, and spare handling equipment. Water is essential, but never let your dog 'tank up' on a lot of water at any one 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 keep all those scenting and tasting areas moist. I added to this tip by mixing a spoonful of glucose or honey into the water in my bottle. To maintain energy levels, a cool body is ideal, 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. You should be calm but concentrating, clear but relaxed. Distractions should be tuned out and most importantly, do not allow your nerves to make you do something with your dog that will destroy, albeit for a short time, the relationship and partnership you have created with your dog 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 tense, time seems to go faster than it actually does, so remember to react promptly but not hastily. Take what you may feel is slightly more time and look relaxed. With the foundation of good preparation behind you, and your knowledge of your dog, you will be able to play your part with confidence.
Conditioning and training to meet the requirements of competition and field events 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.