Achieving a Performance Edge

Preparing sporting dogs for the rigors of competition or multiple-day hunting outings requires being knowledgeable about “little things” that can make a difference in their performance. Sporting dogs are tremendous athletes. Successful trainers are those who take these little things to heart and build them into their training program.

This past summer, elite trainers and handlers across several sporting segments attended the Purina Sporting Dog Summit at the Purina Event Center in Gray Summit, Missouri, to learn from experts on how to gain a competitive advantage. The program, titled “Achieving a Performance Edge,” offered insights related to conditioning and training, nutrition, and preventing and recognizing injuries in the field.

“We understand the hard work and commitment that goes into developing sporting champions,” says Bob West, Director of Purina Sporting Field Operations. “Purina partners with trainers by providing the nutrition that powers their dogs. Our goal in organizing this Summit was to give trainers tools and information to help their hardworking dogs reach their potential.”

Today’s Breeder is pleased to share highlights of the two-day Purina Sporting Dog Summit to help you gain a performance edge with your own dogs.

Starting with puppies and young dogs, potential canine athletes should be gradually introduced to the work they will be expected to perform in the field. “You should begin with building a foundation both physically and mentally,” says James L. Cook, DVM, PhD, DACVS, DACVSMR, director of the Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory at the University of Missouri. “It starts with proper nutrition, building muscle and ‘concept training’ to introduce the dog to the idea of the sport without overworking the dog before his or her body and mind can handle it.

“You don’t want to do too much too soon because the musculoskeletal system is not mature until dogs are 10 to 18 months old, depending on the breed. Early training should focus on core-strengthening activities that promote muscle and nerve development and control.”

Understanding how a dog’s muscles, tendons, ligaments, and nerves develop provides insights about how to protect the critical balance between the soft tissues and bone growth. Many developmental disorders can be prevented or minimized in severity by optimizing a dog’s development, providing proper nutrition, and avoiding stressful activities and training methods that could traumatize the soft tissues during maturation.

“Concussive, high-intensity and/or long-duration activities can negatively affect the development and health of soft tissues like muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joint capsules,” Cook explains. “When this occurs, the soft tissue cannot ‘keep up’ with bone growth and developmental problems occur.

In addition, because the growth plates, or physes, are ‘open’ during growth, they are susceptible to fractures and other damage that can cause abnormal growth, pain and lameness.”

Using Periodization to Train

Periodization training is a concept developed over the past 12 years in elite sprint sled dog racers by Purina Senior Research Scientist Arleigh Reynolds, DVM, PhD, DACVN, Director of the Purina research facility in Salcha, Alaska. Periodized training in elite human athletes sparked the idea of applying periodization principles to the sled dogs. The training method also can be used to train hardworking sporting dogs. 

The concept focuses on performance goals and how to optimize and restructure muscle systems using nutrition and conditioning periodization. It involves manipulating training variables to maximize capacity and performance.

The training stages used in periodization are:

  • Foundation — Building an aerobic base over 16 to 20 weeks using long-slow distance (LSD) training, such as free running and swimming, and incorporating high-intensity work after four to eight weeks
  • Preparation — Moderate volume/higher-intensity work from 12 to 16 weeks that includes road working, LSD running, and short, intense sprint races
  • Specialization — High speed/short-interval runs and a few pace runs, with a sharp decrease in volume and an increase in intensity of work between events, allowing time for mental and physical recovery
  • Recovery — Dogs should have fun and stay active with nonspecific activities such as free play, free walking in groups of dogs and obedience training

“You have to look at what a dog is capable of and then slowly increase or alter the conditioning stimulus over time, giving adequate periods of rest for recovery between sessions,” Reynolds explains. “This builds muscles and red blood cells and ultimately increases cardiac output.”

As with humans, periodization had phenomenal success in sled dogs, boosting their performance and keeping the intense racers free of injuries throughout training and competition. Prior to using periodized conditioning, Reynolds realized that his sled dogs failed to develop the aerobic base they needed for competition. Gradually, as he introduced periodization, adding diverse and varied training stimuli, he began to notice performance changes in the sled dogs.

Reynolds advises trainers not to push dogs to the maximum every time they are worked. “The idea is to focus on different things and build on them,” he says. “Start easy and increase slowly to optimize all muscle systems through adaptation and periodization.”

Adaptation Cycle Graph

Proper Conditioning Reduces Stress 

Jennell Appel, DVM, CCRT, a certified canine rehabilitation therapist and founder of the SportVet Canine Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Mobile Clinic, stresses the importance of proper conditioning in a training program. “A conditioned dog has greater stamina and longevity, with less stress on the body,” she says. 

She gives these examples of exercises to support conditioning:

  • Strength training — Running uphill, weight/cart pulling, hindlimb resistance bands, trotting over obstacles (Cavaletti exercises), stand/ down/stand, and crawling
  • Endurance training — Slow, steady trot for at least 20 minutes, steady swim for at least 15 minutes
  • Balance — Figure 8 walking on an air mattress, three-leg and two-leg standing on a balance ball or disc
  • Body awareness — Ladder/ obstacle/plank walking, mattress walking
  • Flexibility — Stretching program twice weekly

All sporting dogs are susceptible to injuries even those that are well-conditioned. Early recognition of a potential problem, such as lameness, can help minimize or possibly prevent an injury that requires long-term rehabilitation.

“Trainers should watch their dog’s gait closely every day, so they can recognize changes that may lead to potential problems,” Appel says. “Trotting is considered the best gait for detecting lameness. It is an efficient gait that drives a dog’s muscular energy forward.”

Dogs place 60 percent of their weight on the front legs — equally distributed — and 20 percent on each hind leg. Even subtle front leg lameness or off-loading can produce major compensatory problems for the rest of the body before it becomes a chronic condition. 

Sporting dogs that appear lame or injured should be promptly examined by a veterinary expert. Specialists in treating sporting dogs include veterinarians who are board-certified by the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (vsmr.org); veterinarians and therapists who are certified rehabilitation practitioners or therapists by the University of Tennessee or Canine Rehabilitation Institute (caninerehabinstitute.com); and veterinarians who are board-certified in small-animal surgery by the American College of Veterinary Surgery (acvs.org).

Understanding & Preventing Injuries

Understanding orthopedic injuries in sporting dogs begins with understanding how their bodies work. “The forelegs are the brakes and steering, and the hind legs are the motor,” Cook explains.

Some of the more common injuries related to a sporting dog’s front legs are: strains to the muscles and tendons; sprains to the ligaments; shoulder instability; biceps tendon tenosynovitis or tendinitis in the shoulder joint; infraspinatus contracture in the shoulder; “jump down” syndrome or traumatic fragmented medial coronoid process of the elbow joint; carpal chipping in the wrist; retinaculum tears; and paw and pad injuries. 

Common hind leg injuries include: strains to the muscles and tendon; sprains to the ligaments; lumbosacral instability in the lower spine; iliopsoas muscle-tendon strain or tears; cranial cruciate ligament rupture of the stifle; Achilles tendon injury affecting the hock joint; retinaculum tears in the hock; and paw and pad injuries.   

Efforts to keep dogs healthy and injury-free are essential. “The most important takeaways are to remember that to prevent injuries you should always warm up a dog before training and competition, cool down a dog after exercise, and allow time for recovery between high-intensity training and sporting events,” Cook says. “There is nothing worse than an injury that could be prevented.”

Appel agrees. “Dogs need a 10- to 15-minute warm-up before exercise,” she says. “A fast-paced walk helps to improve flexibility and heat the muscles, which reduce susceptibility to a strain injury and facilitate oxygen utilization due to an increase in hemoglobin release.” 

A submaximal activity, such as trotting, jogging up a hill, small jumps or figure 8s on an incline, help warm a dog’s muscles before exercise, Cook adds. “These exercises help to warm the tissues and reduce the risk of injury. When a dog performs these warm-ups, he is actively stretching his muscles.”

A dog also should be gradually cooled down for 10 to 15 minutes after working. “A slow walk on a leash helps to dissipate waste products in the body,” Appel says. “This gradual decrease in cardiac output helps prevent the blood from pooling in the muscles and reduce soreness.”

Recovery is a key aspect for hardworking dogs. “Knowing what stresses individual dogs will help you decrease the negative part of that stress when a dog is recovering,” Reynolds says. “Although not all stress is ‘bad,’ it is important to define stress tolerance for an individual dog so you can help the dog benefit from the right amount of stress. You have to know what stress is for each dog you work with.”

The benefits of recovery include improving strength, increasing the range of motion and functioning, reducing pain, injuries and the need for medications, and improving weight and cardiovascular health. “Dogs have an amazing ability to recover if you let them,” Cook says.

There are many considerations when developing a young dog into an elite canine athlete. Being mindful that early training should incorporate the concept of the sport is helpful. Most important, be sure to make training fun for both you and your future sporting dog.  

Nutritional Priming Impacts Performance

Nutritionally priming a dog for performance can help boost the dog’s athleticism, says Brian Zanghi, PhD, Purina Research Nutritionist. “Diets enriched with the right nutrients can help drive adaptation,” he says. “Feeding a high-protein/high-fat performance food is optimal for hardworking dogs because it metabolically primes them to use these fuels for exercise.”

The harder dogs work, the greater their fat and protein metabolism. Fat is the preferred source of energy during exercise. A high-fat diet increases the number of mitochondria in muscle cells, which promotes burning fat for energy. Protein helps to support strong muscles and maintain the body-protein balance during hard work when exercise activates protein breakdown.

Ideally, sporting dogs should be fed a performance food that provides from 28 to 30 percent protein and from 18 to 20 percent fat to sustain their energy demand, Zanghi says. Purina® Pro Plan® SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula, which contains a minimum of 30-percent protein and 20-percent fat, and Purina® Pro Plan® SPORT Advanced 28/18 Formula, which contains a minimum of 28-percent protein and 18-percent fat, are examples.

PP Sport Food

Zanghi advises feeding a performance food year-round. “Switching to a maintenance diet in the off-season is like metabolically detraining your dogs.” he says. “Maintenance foods deliver high levels of carbohydrates, which decrease the metabolic capacity to use fats, and ultimately result in reduced endurance. It’s best to reduce the portion fed in the off-season and monitor body condition to keep a dog healthy and fit.”

A tool to help minimize protein breakdown and aid in muscle conditioning is feeding a high-protein/high-fat nutritional supplement 30 minutes before training and competition. “After one hour of working hard, a dog has a drop in the blood leucine level,” Zanghi explains. “Leucine is a protein building block and most significantly triggers protein building. Feeding a supplement with fast proteins containing high leucine that are easily digested and absorbed is optimal for cell function and recovery.”

The Purina® Pro Plan® SPORT PRiME nutritional supplement bar, with fast proteins, helps keep muscles strong during activity. It also helps nourish muscles before and during exercise when fed 30 minutes before the start of a workout. These bars are formulated to be nutrient and calorie dense. The low-carbohydrate content helps minimize digestion related to the release of insulin as insulin activates fat and carbohydrate storage and slows fat burning.

PP Prime Bar

An important recovery tool is the Purina® Pro Plan® SPORT ReFUEL nutritional supplement bar, which should be fed within 30 minutes after exercise to allow the muscles to maximize nutrient uptake. Designed for short-term recovery after strenuous activity, the ReFUEL bar is specifically formulated to deliver a targeted portion size of rapidly digested carbohydrates to enable glucose to enter the bloodstream when fed within 30 minutes of the completion of exercise when muscles are maximized for sugar uptake and glycogen replenishment. Although glycogen is an important fuel for intense work, the muscle has a limited capacity to store it.

PP Refuel Bar

Another important tool for hardworking dogs is Purina Veterinary Diets® FortiFlora canine probiotic supplement, which contains a special strain of probiotc, Enterococcus faecium SF68, that is proven to promote intestinal health and balance. Prescribed by veterinarians, FortiFlora may help manage the stress of travel or unfamiliar environments that can disrupt a sporting dog’s digestive system. The supplement contains guaranteed amounts of live active cultures and has been shown to be safe, stable and effective in restoring normal intestinal health and balance. 

FortiFlora