With the announcement of the qualifications for the AKC National Agility Championships 2016, I began to wonder about what we are putting our dogs through to get to the 'big' events. Are dog sports unique? Should we push our dogs to go and go and go? Or should we start to treat them like human athletes? As a veterinarian solely practicing sports medicine, I worry about pushing our dogs to injuries and burn out.
Lets look at agility in general. Most agility organizations in the United States have some sort of national event. It is a yearly event and you have a year to qualify. From the onset, there is no set 'off season'. AKC holds their national event in March, with a qualifying period from December to December. USDAA holds their national event in October with a qualifying period from September to September (I know there are other organizations, but these are the two I'm most familiar with). In some areas of the country, there are months that local trials are not held, but more and more people will travel to continue to compete. Ideally if you compete in AKC and USDAA, having one nationals in the fall and one in the spring is perfect. Training builds up to each event, you compete, and then you take a break. A Break from Competing. Why doesn't this happen? Why do people feel it's necessary to continue to push their dog to compete weekend after weekend?
We have no research in competitive dogs and what pushing them to continuously compete does to their body and mind, all I can do is extrapolate from human sports.
I competed as a swimmer from the age of 7 to 21. I competed year round, one to two weekends a month. There were 2 championship events a year, followed by at least 2 weeks off after, followed by cross training to work back into the new season. No competing after the championship event for 1-2 months.
Sounds familiar, this could easily be an agility schedule.
When I was young, I swam every event possible, often 4-6 a day, similar to a daily USDAA schedule. As, I grew, I started to specialize, sometimes only swimming 5-6 events in a weekend, similar to an AKC schedule. When I became a college swimmer, that schedule got even shorter, the competitive season was Oct to February-5 months, with a total of 18-20 days of competition, only swimming 4-5 events at each meet. The 'off-season' was spent conditioning, cross-training, and maintain swimming fitness. All very similar to what we expect of our dogs competitive wise.
So, I thought, maybe swimmers are unique, lets look at professional athletes: football, basketball, and baseball.
The NFL plays 14 games over 15 weeks. Even with playoffs, we are looking at a 5 month season and a 7 month 'off-season'. The NBA teams play 82 games between October 28 and April 15, again a 6 month 'off-season'. And, Major League Baseball teams play 162 games in 180 days, again, a 6 month 'off-season'. In fact, every sport I looked into had an off season, and my sport of choice, swimming, had one of the shortest as a youngster, yet we ALWAYS had time off from competing.
Shouldn't we be giving our dogs an 'off-season'?
Ideally, the time off would happen after the national event. Conditioning should occur year round to keep our dogs in the best shape possible and prevent injury. Conditioning includes strength work, core work, and cardiac/endurance work. This can be done hiking, running, swimming, along with using special canine conditioning equipment to strengthen and work the core. I realize it's near to impossible to tell your dog we are not doing anything for a month. Time off means not competing, not pushing our dogs to do more than they should, not running our dogs into the ground. It means giving them the best foundation to be the best athlete they can be. Isn't it time we admit that our dogs are athletes and treat them that way?