We've all heard the importance of warming up our muscles before exercise in order to prepare for activity and to prevent injury. In agility this practice not only applies to you as the handler, but it also applies to our canine athletes as well. Agility relies on rapid acceleration and deceleration, tight turns and difficult obstacle entries all of which require your dog to be in top physical shape.
All too often we see handlers and students pull their dogs out of their crate and place them at the start line. How many times have you stood up after sitting for a prolonged period of time feeling stiff? You may have to take several steps before the blood begins to circulate and warm up your muscles. The same biomechanics apply to our dogs when they've been sitting or sleeping in a crate for an extended period of time.
Running our dogs without a warm-up forces them to use precious course time to get their blood flowing and muscles warm. This means our dog is running at a slower pace in order to warm themselves up or worse, they risk an injury that may make them stop competing and/or training. While research in dog related sports is limited, there is evidence through other research studies to suggest a direct improvement in athletic performance when a warm-up preceeds the activity. The benefits include:
Preparing the body and mind for strenuous physical activity
Increasing the body's core temperature, thereby increasing the muscle temperature
Loosening stiff muscles, making them more pliable and supple
Gradually increasing the heart rate in preparation for vigorous activity
Increasing blood flow, which increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to working muscles
During trials our dogs are typically crated when not in the ring, so identifying a marker dog is a good way to gauge when you should start getting your dog warmed up. Typically your marker dog should be approximately 15 dogs ahead of yours in the line up. When your marker dog is ready to enter the ring, it's time to start your warm-up.
There are a lot of additional distractions at a trial that we don't usually experience in daily training, so we like to start our warm-up playing Susan Garrett's 'crate games'. We wait for our dog to sit when we touch the handle of their crate door. Our dog should wait until given a release cue while we open the door. Maintaining basic manners at a trial is a great way to keep your dog focused on you, both inside and outside the ring. Once released, we are off to begin our warm-up.
1) Potty Walk - Many trials have designated areas for your dog to relieve themselves. We use our walk to the the designated potty area to allow the blood to begin to flow without any stress on our dog's joints. Once our relief walk is complete, we move on to flatwork.
2) Rev that Engine - To begin our flatwork, we like to play a game with our dog to start increasing body temperature. Tug is a great way to begin a warm-up since it activates both the forelimb and hindlimb muscles. Remember to get low with your dog to avoid placing strain on their neck and spine. Not all dogs are tuggers, so we recommend you use what works best for your dog to start your warm-up. Other options might include disc activities, fetch, a short jog, or chase.
3) Flatwork - This is where we practice 'shadow handling' to reinforce our directionals and ground work. We do this at a walk, slowly building up to a trot or light jog in order to start warming up those muscles. Below are some suggestions for exercises to practice on the flat.
Left and Right Turns
Puppy Push Ups
Circles (left and right)
4) Practice Jump - Please be courteous at the practice jump. The next jump height in the ring has the priority so be patient, wait your turn and don't panic. If you can't get to the practice jump, you can stretch your leash across the ground to use as a pretend jump. Below are some suggestions for exercises at the practice jump.
5) Take a Dip - Depending on the time of year, you may want to give your pup a quick dip or wet down with the hose to 'Lift their Spirit'. A nice, refreshing dip before and/or after your run can invigorate your dog, increase blood flow and stimulate muscles.
Here are some of examples our our warm-up routines.
It doesn't matter if you have a young dog or a senior dog; it's just not fair to expect them to perform at their highest level without a warm-up. It only takes 10-15 minutes to get your dog prepared mentally and physically for the ring. Remember to also include a cool-down for after your run to allow heart rate, breathing and muscle temperature to return to normal. While we did not cover cool-downs in this article, they are as equally important to your dog's performance as the warm-up.
We hope sharing our go to activities will inspire you to start your own warm-up routine or share some of your favorite warm-up tips with us in the comments below.