Jocelynn Jacobs DVM, CVC

Your two year old, healthy male show dog has the picture-perfect five generation pedigree, has been in conformation classes since he was 8 weeks old, and has been socialized and exposed to just about every situation you could imagine he might encounter at a dog show. He is ready to sweep up his wins and obtain that coveted title of champion at a handful of shows, right? Are you forgetting anything? What about conditioning for show performance?

There are four major points to consider when evaluating whether your dog is destined to be a champion and ensuring he is ring-ready: Health, genetics, training, and conditioning. In this particular scenario, the first three points appear to have been met. However, what about conditioning? Is he in excellent physical shape and well-muscled? Even though he has ideal conformation for perfect movement, does he “float” effortlessly around the ring and command the judge admire his presence? Conditioning show dogs for the ring, whether they are toy breeds or working breeds, can be critical to finishing your dog quickly.

Conditioning For Show Performance Is Important

Conditioning is an important part of getting your dog ring-ready. It also is one that many people forget about or have little time to focus on. After showing for almost 20 years in Alaskan malamutes, I have found that conditioning is an extremely important part of getting my dogs ready for the show ring. Judges understand the importance of a well-conditioned dog, and frequently will compliment owners or handlers of a well-conditioned canine. One of my favorite compliments came from a judge at an after-specialty banquet speech about the dogs he had judged earlier in the day. My dog was fortunate enough to have won Winner’s Dog, and his comment was “… and the dog I awarded Winner’s Dog to was so well conditioned, he had muscles on him where I didn’t think dogs had muscles!” Whether your dog is only 8 inches off the ground or 40 inches tall, conditioning DOES make a difference. How many times have you seen dogs run around the ring with a top line swaying back and forth, rolling with excessive fat? Or after running around the ring once or twice are so winded because of lack of conditioning, they begin to wither like a dying flower before your eyes? These types of situations occur much too often in the ring, and if you are looking for a competitive edge, consider conditioning your dog as a step to help you rise above the competition.

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Advantages of Conditioning

The advantages of conditioning to enhance your ring presence are endless. Physical well-being, mental well-being and endurance are just three of these advantages. Physically, well-conditioned dogs are trimmer with well differentiated muscle lines. The muscles of their front and rear assemblies are strong and firm. Conditioning them can enhance flow of movement helping them to extend in the rear and front with more grace and less effort. Their coordination is greatly improved, and they step with confidence and power. Even a well-conditioned dog with an inexperienced handler can attract more attention to themselves and deter the judge from focusing on handling errors.

Mental well-being is also a significant benefit of conditioning. People who work out, run, or exercise on a regular basis know that endorphins are released during a session of physical activity. Regular exercise can also benefit dog and help improve their mental health. Well conditioned dogs are more upbeat and seem to thrive on moving around the ring with their handlers. They are more easily able to deal with stressful situations or quick, unexpected events (such as changing handlers or rushing from the crate into the ring).

The third advantage is enhanced endurance. Large “open” classes or group competition can be very tiring and boring. With extra environmental stress such as heat from an inside show or constant sun bearing down during an outside show, the animal’s endurance can quickly fade. However, the well-conditioned dog can appear as excited, alert and stimulated at the end of a large class as they were when they first stepped into the ring. Wilting dogs are easier to pass over for a win from a judge’s standpoint. Even if they have excellent conformation and type, looking tired or stressed instead of “showy,” can assure them anything BUT a first place ribbon.

How to Condition Your Dog

So, what is involved with conditioning your show dog? Conditioning your dog involves two major categories. The first being exercise and the second being nutrition.

Exercise

Conditioning your dog physically for the show ring can begin as young as five or six weeks of age. Allowing puppies to run, play, and tussle with their siblings or other gentle young or older dogs is critical for them to develop coordination and muscle strength. Sporting, hound, working or herding puppies can be taken out into the woods or field with older, more experienced dogs to learn to run with them as well expand their mind by sniffing and exploring new sites, sounds and smells.

This concept doesn’t have to be limited to these breeds, however. Toy breeds or non-sporting breeds can partake in similar activities at the park or even in large back yards. Taking any breed of show dog through the woods so they can learn to jump over logs, run between trees and through little puddles can be great for developing muscle strength as well as help with socialization (even in the toy group ring, I have seen puddles that specials dogs need to maneuver around during raining show days!).

At my kennel, we begin conditioning our malamute puppies at a very early age. We are fortunate to have 100 acres of our own land full of trees, stones, brush, ponds and even a little creek. We begin taking our pups out at a young age so they can develop coordination, and learn to trot, cantor or gallop while we supervise them as a mother hen watches over her brood. We also compete in sled races with our dogs, so during training sessions with dog sleds (not ATV’s which we use during Fall training ), we will let our youngsters run along with the team. These puppies are not hooked up in harness, but instead run alongside, up front, or behind the harnessed team. This develops muscling and endurance, as well as introduces them to the concept of sledding.

Adult dogs can be conditioned in a variety of ways. For many of the smaller breeds, long walks or even short runs can be beneficial. Some handlers or owners will use a treadmill or have the dogs run up and down stairs to develop muscling. Swimming is another great way to condition all dogs since it not only helps to trim and tone, but develops endurance.

For medium to large breeds of dogs, treadmills, swimming, and stair conditioning are excellent methods of conditioning. For those owners who are avid bike riders (and are coordinated themselves), biking can be a great method of keeping your dog in shape. Be sure to have these dogs on a leash or use proper equipment made for biking with your dog. Also make sure your dog runs along roads or on dirt tracks rather than on asphalt, to avoid pad or carpal injuries.

Harness training is not just for sled dog breeds anymore either! Many sporting, hound and herding breeds are trained in harness to pull ATV’s, three or four wheeled “riggs” (carts made for being pulled behind the dogs) or modified snow sleds. More and more herding and sporting breeds are entered in races originally intended for the arctic breeds! Training in harness develops and builds muscle, as well as provides endurance training.

Nutrition

Nutrition is the other key to proper conditioning. Feeding a high quality, balanced commercially prepared dog food is important. Diets that include a highly digestible source of animal protein provide proper amino acids for canines. These amino acids found in animal source protein are important for proper muscle development as well as being available for the basic building blocks for other organ function.

High quality fats are important as well. Fats are the preferred fuel source for energy for dogs, and thus, those dogs under both physical and mental stress metabolize more fats to meet their energy needs. Look for fats that come from animal based sources such as chicken or meat based fats. These, in general, are high quality and are more palatable.

Commercial diets that are higher in fat, compared to poorer quality brands of dog food, have more calories per cup of food. Thus, the owner does not have to feed as much to the dog to satisfy their energy or metabolic needs. This needs to be kept in mind for dogs who have a slower metabolism. These dogs may need to be fed fewer cups of food each day, otherwise they may become obese and thus appear to be in poor condition. Each dog has their own personal metabolic rate, and the owner, handler or breeder needs to keep this in mind and adjust their food intake accordingly.

Fiber also is extremely important for keeping show dogs in proper condition. Without fiber added as a part of the canine diets, diarrhea could become an everyday enemy, draining the dogs from much needed nutrients. Fermentable fibers such as beet pulp or rice bran actually can be broken down in the intestines of dogs, and are an important sources of energy for the lining of the intestines. Intestinal lining needs energy too to keep it healthy and able to absorb nutrients properly.

Personally, we feed Eukanuba to our dogs since it provides the most complete nutritional package for our performance dogs. High quality animal based fat and proteins at the proper levels, as well as a proper blend of fiber for optimal stool quality and quantity are just a couple reasons we find Eukanuba works extremely well for our dogs.

Conditioning your dog is critical to boost your dog’s performance in the ring. Through proper exercise and nutritional programs, they will be better prepared to quickly take the wins they deserve.