THE CANINE ATHLETE

Why is it that there seems to be such a quantum leap between the comparison connecting the requirements of a human athlete, such as Colin Jackson or Paula Radcliffe, and that of a canine athlete? If the above mentioned humans arrived at an event, got out of their car went straight to the start line for a marathon or hurdles event without, for instance, warming up, it would be perceived as a complete lack of professionalism and preparation. So why do we expect our dogs to do just that? When a dog is in training, competing or even going for a walk he needs to have a warming up regime, even if this entails a short duration of lead walking before he is let off to seek out his usual 'haunts'. This is even more important if the dog is performing agility, flyball and other activities such as showing and obedience.

Correct preparation for any type of competition work is essential, and a good programme of fitness and conditioning is vital for prolonged physical health. This is equally important for both the dog's psychological and physiological health, in other words his physical and mental wellbeing. A warm up routine should always precede training or a competition, with the handler actively encouraging this, thus facilitating the warming of the major muscle groups through a regime of gently increasing activity. Throwing a ball a couple of times does not suffice! By slowly increasing the activity level, the blood supply to the target muscles improves. With this, cardiovascular activity improves, enabling more oxygen to be delivered to the muscle cells providing a vital supply before exercise. Limited oxygen within muscle fibres has a huge detrimental effect on performance during explosive and endurance type activity. Warming also raises the body temperature aiding the distribution of fuel to the muscles that improve reaction time. Question - Which would stretch further: a cold elastic band or a warm one? We should all know the answer - a warm one!

This routine can be enhanced by a pre-event massage, which is an even more targeted approach for the all important muscle groups. The difference between the muscle warming with a 'warm up' alone, and a 'warm up' with a pre event massage, is easily seen on these thermal imaging pictures (Figure 1 and 2). (Red indicates higher recorded warmth within the tissue).
An additional method employed by many athletes is the application of appropriate passive movements, only to be achieved after the muscles are warm, (not to be confused with stretching). This is a positive method of improving joint mobility and encouraging a full range of movement that will enhance performance and good co-ordination. If these muscles, tendons and other soft tissue are not prepared for activity and are then expected to contract and relax to their maximum, injury can follow.
This regime also focuses the brain: psychologically preparing the dog for activity and the tasks ahead. It speeds up nerve impulses that travel through the muscle fibre, naturally facilitating body movements. This neurological reaction also stimulates the dog's mind to have a feeling of enhanced spatial awareness and balance issues.
One problem that handlers seem to experience is that their dogs always 'seem' prepared for work or play and do not give any overt indication for the need to warm or prepare. Worse still, they do not always give an obvious indication of injury. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, it can increase blood supply to the muscles as a natural reaction to the 'fight - flight' response, but this does NOT mean the body is prepared, and can mask pain and injury. Ultimately their willingness to please and excitement of being involved can be their raison d'être. Instinctively, for a dog to show pain is a sign of weakness and possible rejection from the pack. This is a significant and often overlooked symptom of a dog's self denial to pain, until the hurt is insufferable.

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Figure 1 Thermal imaging after a light warm up with no massage

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Figure 2 Thermal imaging after a light warm up and 20 minutes after a pre event massage

The warm down is just as important. This is an area that can be overlooked due to time constraints or just a lack of understanding of its importance. The warm down is the cleansing technique. Without a warm down muscles can retain lactic acid from activity, and it is precisely this - an acid. Human athletes seem to have a penchant for leaping into barrels of ice; I do not recommend this for your dog! Lactic acid and other metabolic waste within the muscle cell can cause damage and also pain; which is why we ache after exercise without a warm down. It can also make handlers believe that their dogs' are suffering from premature ageing due to the stiffness observed in the morning after an event or training!
With a very simple warm down much of the discomfort can be eased; this is achieved by a gentle jog for about 10 minutes, or a lively walk - just to influence good blood flow. This need not be done immediately after exercise but within an hour or two is adequate. If a warm down is enhanced with a dedicated post event massage more benefits will be experienced as the lymphatic system assists the cleansing of the body.
Added to this psychologically, a reconnection after an event with the handler is what makes it all worthwhile for the dog! If time is taken to warm down and then put hands on in a massage, the handler/dog relationship is enhanced and this extremely important reconnection is achieved.
If these techniques are endorsed and practiced by every individual for their dog, performance will improve noticeably. The responsibility for our dogs' health rests with us, and by employing these simple principals injury levels and arthritis levels will be reduced, and longevity for both competition and good health will be enhanced.

THIS ARTICLE IS INTENDED FOR COMPETITIVE DOGS WITH NO KNOWN PRE-EXISTING CONDITIONS. ANY INDIVIDUAL WISHING TO USE MASSAGE AS AN ADDITIONAL AID TO WARMING UP AND WARMING DOWN SHOULD ALWAYS RECEIVE PROFESSIONAL TRAINING FIRST FROM AN ACCREDITED PRACTITIONER/TRAINER.
IT IS ILLEGAL FOR ANYONE WHETHER TRAINED OR NOT TO MASSAGE ANY DOG OTHER THAN THEIR OWN WITHOUT VETERINARY CONSENT.
IF YOU ARE WORRIED IN ANY WAY ABOUT THE YOUR DOGS' HEALTH, YOU SHOULD ALWAYS SEEK VETERINARY ADVICE.


Julia Robertson
Galen Therapy Centre

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