Introduction to Dog Agility
(specific training, competition-related injuries, etc.)
Not every dog should be doing agility and may become injured or aggravate a pre-existing condition if the owner does not perform some pre-screening before entering the phase of intensive training. The pre-screening should at a minimum consist of hip, elbow, and eye checks.
Veterinarians should be informed what is planned for the dog and the dog should be radiographed for both hip & elbow dysplasia. The owner should reconsider their plans for agility if the dog is rated anything less than 'Fair'. Unobstructed vision is also critical.
Because agility is a fairly new type of dog competition, it is not unusual for a veterinarian to be unaware of the requirements for agility. In this case, it is very helpful for the owner to have available a short video (2-3 minutes long) of a dog performing the equipment; this will give the veterinarian an idea of the physical requirements necessary for the sport. Both the owner and veterinarian should be particularly sensitive to the dog's weight. What is a good healthy weight for a pet dog with normal activity expectations may be too heavy for agility training and competition. Poor performance or injuries, which can include muscle strains and other soft tissue injuries, are nearly always due to the 'weekend athlete syndrome' -- i.e. the dog is overweight and/or not conditioned properly.
On-going conditioning separate from the equipment training is vital to keeping the dog's agility performance high and injury-free. Weight bearing exercise is the most appropriate; for example walks interspersed with short sprints condition both the dog and the handler. Long distance, low to the ground games of ball and/or frisbee are particularly helpful for building the dog's cardiovascular and/or muscular capacity. Swimming can also be beneficial for improving cardiovascular & muscular capacity.
The agility obstacles that require the most conditioning (particularly for international style agility) are the jumps. In order for a dog to be able to safely engage in the amount of jumping required for both agility training and competition, the dog must not only possess the proper cardiovascular and muscular structure, he must possess the necessary skeletal structure as well. Skeletal conditioning is performed slowly over time by spending at least 6-9 months of training at low jump heights; this minimizes impact to the bones and yet induces the rather slowly growing bones to thicken and develop the strength needed at the correct points to withstand the impact of landing after jumping. These months of low jump training are a good time for a handler to work on developing the dog's command vocabulary. Once this conditioning period is accomplished, the jumps can then be systematically raised in training until the dog's full jump height is reached and actual competition can be considered.
Some on-going physical maintenance of the dog is necessary as well in order to prevent injury whether in training or competition. In particular, nails must be kept trimmed back at all times so that they do not catch on the equipment or impede the dog's traction. Some sacrifice in dog appearance must be accepted in those breeds which have a lot of hair over or about the eyes; this hair must be kept trimmed or tied back so as not to interfere with the dog's vision.
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