Training sporting dogs

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Bearing in mind that we speak in terms of canine sports and that some dogs behave like regular athletes, training dogs for sport is the natural next step. Human athletes need to follow specific physical training programmes tailored to their sport and standard and, clearly, dogs need to do the same if they are to perform well and be healthy and happy.

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Basic principles of training

Training entails the physical, technical, tactical, intellectual and psychological preparation of an athlete by means of physical exercises. In terms of dogs, training is about putting the dog through a set of physical exercises in a playful way to keep the dog motivated.

Workload

The concept of workload is fundamental. It should be long enough and of sufficient intensity for it to be qualified as training, increasing as the performance improves, without becoming so demanding or tedious that the dog loses its motivation.

Characteristics of the workload

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The workload should be applied gradually, especially at the beginning (some steps may be accelerated if the animal is already used to training), and continuously (sessions need to be regular if they are to be effective).

The workload should vary with time. It will not be possible for a dog to maintain the same level of fitness throughout the year, so preparation, competition and training periods are distinguished.

The content of the workload should also vary. Several different physical demands are made on the dog within a single sport (power, speed, endurance, coordination for example). The dog needs to adapt physically to all of these demands in a different way and the recovery period will also be different for each. A dog is perfectly capable of undertaking one type of effort while recovering from another type of effort. This actually maximises the dog’s potential as well as saving time and improving performance. So a dog recovering from a run has no problems doing a different type of exercise, such as muscle stretching, for instance.

The workload sequence does need to follow a precise order in a single session. Exercises demanding explosive strength, speed and coordination are generally scheduled early in the session, followed by exercises based on incomplete recovery and finally endurance exercises.

Training methods

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Training muscle strength

Work and muscle strength can be increased during very intense, very short bursts of effort followed by short recovery periods without increasing oxygen consumption or triggering anaerobic catabolism (lactic fermentation). This is the principle on which all pure strength exercises are based. The best example is dog pulling. This can be adapted to each individual dog by letting it pull a tyre, which is something all dogs love to do.

Training anaerobic power

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Anaerobic power allows the muscles to work intensively without oxygen, as in sprinting, racing, the attack segment in Ring.

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Anaerobic power allows the muscles to work intensively without oxygen, as in sprinting (racing, the attack segment in Ring). In practice, it is developed by alternating very short, intense sprints (between ten seconds and a minute) and recovery periods (two to four minutes). This type of training is very physically and psychologically demanding and should only be scheduled just ahead of a competition. One useful exercise is to get the dog to run the length of a football pitch and back by placing a person at each end to encourage it.

Training aerobic power

Aerobic power is used for long a period of effort requiring the improved use and transport of oxygen. It is the type of effort demanded of scenthounds and sled dogs, or indeed any dog that needs to sustain an effort for more than 20-30 seconds. Long-distance running at moderate pace or a series of short runs (3-5 minutes) at a slightly faster pace followed by periods of light exercise (walking or trotting) are recommended to increase aerobic power.

The dog’s experience and alertness are the best indicators of how effective the training programme is.

Training and competition

Warm-up

All athletes warm up before a competition to activate their enzyme and oxygenation systems (which will provide the energy they need) and reduce the reaction time for muscle contraction.

For dogs, the warm-up can comprise muscle stretching and flexing, followed by a game to stimulate the dog’s muscles and get it motivated. If the warm-up is done properly, it will improve the dog’s neuromuscular coordination, prevent muscle tears and contraction, and ensure it begins the competition in optimal physiological and psychological condition.

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Warm-down

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The dog always needs to be warmed down after a competition or a period of work. This helps ensure success in future competitions, among other things. A series of very light exercises will keep the blood circulation in the muscles at a high enough rate to get rid of waste accumulated during effort (lactic acid, toxins). A light massage also helps eliminate toxins and calm the animal down. As a consequence, it will suffer from much less muscle fatigue and aches, and will be physically and mentally fitter for future events.

Break in training

A sudden and complete break in the training programme at the end of the season is highly inadvisable. The animal will quickly lose the benefits it has accumulated and will be mentally destabilised. It is better to gradually decrease the workload while increasingly transforming physical activity into play.

Recovery and overtraining

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

After a period of intense effort, such as a competition, the dog will naturally be physiologically tired for a time. If the dog is properly fed and trained, its body will recover and even overcompensate (the dog will be in better shape for a short time after complete recovery than it was before the competition). This is the ideal time to demand more major efforts from the dog.

However, if this effort is demanded during the recovery period, the body will not be able to recover normally. The dog will develop overtraining syndrome, characterised by loss of appetite, weight loss, oversensitivity and extreme fatigue.

To ensure balance throughout the competition season, the dog’s recovery period must always be respected, which entails a good understanding of its biological clock.

By training the dog properly, the owner will ensure it remains in good health, puts in good performances and stays motivated throughout the year. It is about respecting the dog’s work and endeavouring to ensure it can continue to do the best it can for as long as possible based on its physical and mental abilities. Good trainers need to draw on the experience and advice of experts, while also learning to read and respect their dog.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin
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Influence of the handler-dog relationship on the dog’s work

Relationships in small groups will be one of three types: authoritarian, democratic or laissez-faire. In a work situation, the dog completes a task at the request of the handler. In this relationship, the handler is dominant and the dog is dominated (alpha-omega social structure). Here, the laissez-faire relationship type should be avoided, as it is not conducive to the completion of the task, so the relationship needs to be either authoritarian or democratic. One of the aims of an expedition to Licancabur in Chile in April 1996 was to study the behaviour of SAR dogs at high altitude. During the expedition, we compared the influence of different relationship types on the behaviour of dogs under extreme conditions.

In the authoritarian relationship, the dog has very little freedom. The search for victims is controlled completely by the handler, who selects the search technique. The dog is in constant visual contact with the handler and does not indicate the location of the victim until encouraged to do so by the handler. The two individuals in a team have complementary functions. The dog can be regarded as the handler’s nose. The handler takes the decisions.

In a democratic relationship, the dog and the handler go through the search area individually. The dog indicates the victim’s location as a result of the collation of information provided by the dog and the handler. The search is accomplished through synergy between the partners.

The two relationship types proved to be equally effective in terms of the work itself. The victims were found in both cases. On the other hand, in extreme conditions when the dogs felt considerable physiological suffering, the democratic relationship appeared to be superior.

Dogs in democratic teams worked for longer stretches in difficult conditions. With encouragement from their handlers, they seemed to accept and tolerate a higher level of suffering.

Dogs in the authoritarian teams refused to follow their handler as soon as they began to suffer in a way that could have put them in danger. This rebellion even extended to aggressive behaviour towards the handler.

The type of relationship between the handler and the dog is a decisive factor in the accomplishment of a task under extreme conditions. The more the relationship within the team is based on mutual exchanges, the greater the dog’s acceptance of suffering seems to be. Developing democratic relationships in dog teams and encouraging collective decision-making would therefore appear to be beneficial.

Poupard

Jean-Marc Poupard, Researcher, Laboratory for Animal and Human Biosociology, University of Paris V, Sorbonne - René Descartes

Victim search sequence based on relationship type

Democratic teams

1. Visual survey of the search area.

The dog immediately heads toward a finite area where the victims are located.

2. Exploration of the search area and surroundings.

The dog moves through the area.
It collects scent information in the vicinity of the victims. The search area is extended to include the surrounding area. Movements are more rapid. The handler may warn the dog if it goes too far outside the search area. During this exploratory phase, the dog and handler work more or less independently and are relatively far apart.

3. Discovery of the victim.

The dog returns to areas already explored and identified as probable locations of a buried victim.
The dog sniffs more insistently.
The dog waits for its handler to approach.
The dog establishes visual contact with its handler.
As soon as it is encouraged to do so by the handler, the dog marks the location of the victims. This all occurs as if the deductions of dog and handler were being collated.

Authoritarian teams

1. The dog is taken to the search area.

The dog follows the handler into the search area.

2. Exploration of the search area and surroundings.

The dog walks at the handler’s side.
The dog looks at the handler from time to time.
During this time, the dog and the handler work together. The dog is always under the handler’s authority.

3. Discovery of the victim.

During the exploratory phase, the dog stops at the probable location of a buried victim.
The dog sniffs. The dog makes visual contact with the handler.
As soon as it is encouraged to do so by the handler, the dog marks the location of the victim. This all occurs as if the dog were awaiting the handler’s permission to mark the victim’s location.

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Training sporting dogs
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