The Secret to a Successful Agility Career!

Perfect puppy "Shades"! My newest partner in crime and future sporting dog!
You’ve brought your puppy home from the breeder and are excited to start your life together. Perhaps you have big plans for your pup and foresee a long sporting career ahead of you! But how do you get them there and how do you set your puppy up for success?  ​​Raising the athletic puppy is a full time job and preventing injury in your future agility partner is a crucial component to future success! An injury at a young age doesn't just sideline training but can have lifelong consequences to your dog's development.

Puppy Development

Young dogs are still learning their limits so it's important as their owner to make sure they're playing, training, and working at a level appropriate for their age and development stage.  Doing too much, too soon can result in injury and lifelong consequences so learning how a puppy develops and what their body is capable of handling is important for any owner! Your dog will go through five stages of development. 
  • ​Neonatal (newborn to 2 weeks)
    • Birth weight will double
    • Most of their activity will comprise of sleeping and eating
  • Transitional (2-4 weeks)
    • At this stage your pup will begin to open it's eyes and learn to walk
  • Juvenile (4-12 weeks)
    • Puppies will begin to play and run, strengthening muscles
    • Expect daily changes as the puppy begins to grow rapidly
  • Adolescence (6-12 months)
    • Will begin to enter sexual maturity 
    • Physical growth will slow down
    • Baby fur begins to be replaced by the adult coat
  • Full Maturity (1-2 Years)
    • Physical growth stops. Muscle can be gained over time 
A common denominator used to be that your dog reached physical maturity at one year of age, but that's simply not accurate! When your dog reaches physical maturity will vary greatly depending on the breed and size of dog. Generally, toy and small breeds will reach physical maturity at a younger age than their large or giant breed counterparts. Knowing your breed and talking with your breeder can help guide you in choosing age appropriate activities for your dog. The growth of a purebred puppy will also differ from the growth of a mixed breed puppy. Depending on the breed and size of the parents a mixed breed puppy may differ in growth stage.  

Growth Plates

We hear a lot about a puppy's growth plates and that it's important to limit repetitive stress to these areas of our dog as they grow but have you ever wondered what growth plates are and why they're vulnerable? 

At the end of long bones we can find bone surrounded by layers of soft developing cartilage - this is know as growth plates or epiphyseal plates. This area contains rapidly dividing cells that allow bones to become longer until they reach puberty but they are also the weakest areas of the growing skeleton and very vulnerable to injury! Once a growth plate is closed it becomes a stable and inactive part of the bone.

So what happens when an injury occurs?
  • The growth of damaged cells may slow down and come to a halt, meaning one side may longer grow while the unaffected healthy side continues leading to potential deformities. 
  • A forearm injury such as the growth plate to the ulna could result in the continued growth of the radius bone and bowed legs. 

Preventing Injury in our Puppies

There are a number of things we can do to prevent injury in our young dogs. 
  • Moderation is key! 
  • No fat puppies! Obesity puts undue strain on developing bodies and has lifelong consequences! 
  • Avoid high impact exercise
  • Know your breed - large breeds need special consideration!
  • Delay spaying and neutering 
    • More and more research shows that hormones play a key role in closure of growth plates. Dogs altered early are deprived of these hormones and delay the closure of plates which could lead to a greater risk of developing hip dysplasia and cruciate injuries. 
  • Follow exercise guidelines
    • No forced exercise, endurance or aerobic activities (i.e. running, jogging, hiking)
  • Agility Training /Examples
    • Low impact ground training
    • Recalls
    • Retrieving 
    • Handling cues (e.g. shadow handling, front/blind/rear crosses)
    • Nose targeting behaviours 
    • Start line waits
    • Lowered obstacles (e.g. contact equipment)
    • Low jumps (no higher than carpal height)
    • Tunnels 
    • Body awareness exercises (e.g. wobble board, instability equipment)

Age Appropriate Exercise and Early Conditioning 

So what conditioning can we do with our pups to get them ready for a life of sport?  The bad news is that puppies are more prone to injury because they often lack coordination and muscle strength.  The good news is that there is still a lot you can do with a puppy at a young age to build skills and start developing muscle that is both safe and can teach our puppies how to use their bodies! ​Remember, as you train, to keep the signs of fatigue in mind so that you can quit before risking injury. If you need a refresher make sure to check out my other post on the topic of fatigue.

Conditioning the Agility Puppy

Conditioning your puppy should focus on form, posture, body awareness and coordination activities.  At this stage in their development, training sessions should be short - they don't have a long attention span anyways!! We are not looking for any speed onto the equipment but rather controlled and purposeful movements teaching the puppy how to safely interact with various pieces of fitness equipment. Prior to growth plate closure, you will want to avoid any repetitions or sets with puppy conditioning exercises. This is the time to build foundations skills (eg. sit to stand, stand to down) and teach the dog about proper form and posture on the equipment. Whichever equipment you choose to use, make sure the height is appropriate for your dog's size and development. A good rule of thumb is to keep all equipment below the height of their elbows. 

​Getting regular puppy assessments is also important and can help detect subtle differences and identify injuries sooner! These assessments also help you gather object data and ensure your dog is progressing their strength, balance, and body awareness at an appropriate rate. 

While today's blog has focused on the agility dog I want to stress that preventing injury in young dogs regardless of what sport they may one day compete in is crucial! We want what's best for our dogs and the truth is that at the end of the day we want a happy and healthy partner who can spend many years with us doing what they love - whether that's a sport or just hanging out by our side. Starting early with conditioning and preventing injury is key in helping us achieve that goal! 
Author: 

Carolyn McIntyre

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