By Olga Baram, Certified Canine Athlete Specialist
The focus of this article is mostly on how to achieve best performance in IGP in the hot months ahead while keeping our dogs as comfortable as possible and safe from overheating. And by the way, not just in the summer. Our high drive dogs with big hearts often give it all and don't pace themselves, especially in protection, and it is possible for their bodies to overheat even in winter months as well...
I feel strongly about injury prevention and safety for our dogs, so I will briefly list the basics here as well, since refreshing never hurts😊, yet let's hope we all already know not to leave our dogs in the cars in the sun with the windows rolled up or the AC running with cars out of sight. It is heartbreaking how many k9's are lost every year because of engine failures and the handlers realizing it when it's too late.... Dogs overheating can lead to a stroke, permanent damage and even death.
Now, here are "the must know basics every dog handler should know":
Fatigue - never train thru fatigue, it is dangerous! When dogs are fatigued, injuries occur
First Signs of Overheating - Loss of balance, less alert, white gums
(dehydration), glaze over the eyes, excessive panting, changes in breathing, bright pink sides of the ears. Don't wait for all these signs, one or two are enough to stop training and pay close attention to cooling the dog down immediately.
Cooling Down - After strenuous exercise, GRADUALLY bring the heart rate down, so keep the dog moving, walking in the shade will be best. If available submerge in water - lake, pond, pool, or hose down the belly and feet. Avoid ice and iced water unless overheated, then icing will actually help!
Now let's talk about working dogs, and in particular IGP training. Other than tracking which requires endurance and stamina, our obedience and protection exercises are explosive and intense. So, in human athletes terms, this is not endurance jogging, this is sprinting! If at all possible, train most of it early in the morning or late afternoons/evenings. Preferably in the shade and make sure the dog has access to water at all times between sessions.
The purpose of a training session should be to get good results, and to succeed, right? And at a trial, we definitely want to show off the power, energy, and motivation along with precision that we trained so hard for... We want the 7-12 minutes on the field to show it off in best light, and it is hard to do in the heat, and much harder to do with a hot dog, isn't it?
So this is where my approach to IGP is a bit different than the common information we are all used to seeing. Let me explain - for the most part, there is a ton of information available from veterinarians on prevention of heat stroke. However, most veterinarians are familiar with basic pet population dogs and their lifestyle and needs. Most are not familiar with working dogs, and even a smaller fraction even knows what Schutzhund or IGP is about. Even when focusing on working, ie military/police dogs, detection dogs, or AKC herding dogs, canicross, bikejoring, or active pet dogs, their needs and our expectations are different. Flyball and agility would come the closest to IGP for our purposes.
And here is why:
Sure, IGP dogs need to build endurance and stamina as well. This is just 1 of the 10 components of the complete and balanced conditioning program for IGP, and we go over all of them in The IGP Athlete Program, which focuses specifically on IGP specific conditioning for our dogs.
Yet for the purpose of this article, let's get back to training and trialing in the heat... IGP is not really a stamina demonstration of how long the dog can last, unlike SAR or military work and even ring work... If we are aiming for powerful intense obedience with positive emotions, then we keep the sessions short. Same goes for protection. Think of each session as a sprint and not a marathon. Keep it short, and do repetitions if necessary after the dog is cooled down in the shade or.. an air conditioned car, but we will talk about benefits of pre-cooling below. Remember, our dogs are so driven, they often do not stop till it's too late so it is the responsibility of the handlers to watch closely, monitor the situation and make safe decisions....
Now, it is often impractical to rely on training in the evenings. Days at the club call for afternoon training, and so do the trials. This is where Acclimatization and Pre-cooling come into play. Unfortunately there isn't enough scientific data for canine athletes research available, hence this is a relatively new subject, so we will have to rely mostly the data from research for human athletes. Keep in mind, acclimatization requires 10-14 days period of a minimum 90 minutes per day, with best results with exercise performed during acclimation done gradually. And acclimatization goes away within 7 days, but it is easier to re-acclimate again.
Pay super special attention when traveling to hotter/dryer/more humid than where you live places for training, seminars and trials. There is not enough time to acclimate in these instances, so be extra careful and definitely Pre-cool!
One interesting canine study available showed that working dogs conditioned for endurance responded with best result to acclimatization.
"Fifteen young, purebred, healthy, thermally naïve, untrained Belgian Malinois dogs imported from Western Europe to Israel by the Israeli Defense Force Military Working Dog Unit (IDFMWDU) were included in the study. The dogs were examined upon arrival in Israel, and monitored throughout their 2-yr training period. The training protocol of the IDFMWDU was individualized for each dog on the basis of progress and performance. Study dogs were gradually and progressively trained by increasing the time and distance of treadmill exercise by 10% every 2 wk during the study period. The training regimen included two to three bouts of treadmill exercise of between 2 and 8 km in an acclimatized room (22°C), outdoor exercise between 3 and 10 km, and 10–20 min following outdoor obstacle trails under conditions of high heat and humidity. The study was approved by the Israeli Defense Force ethical committee.
We suggest that the continuous intensive training regimen that our dogs underwent throughout winter and spring induced adaptation to exercise training. Thus the results of the second and third PPTs, conducted at the end of the summer when ambient temperatures peak, specifically reflect the impact of heat acclimation superimposed on exercise training"
I could not find any research studies on pre-cooling for canine athletes, so we are borrowing from human athlete studies now.
Pre-cooling is used by many athletes for the purpose of reducing body temperature prior to exercise and, consequently, decreasing heat stress and improving performance. Therefore, we conducted a literature search and located 27 peer-reviewed randomized controlled trials, which addressed the effects of pre-cooling on performance. These studies were analysed with regard to performance effects and several test circumstances (environmental temperature, test protocol, cooling method, aerobic capacity of the subjects). Eighteen studies were performed in a hot (>26°C) environment and eight in a moderate. The cooling protocols were water application (n = 12), cooling packs (n = 3), cold drinks (n = 2), cooling vest (n = 6) and a cooled room (n = 4). The following different performance tests were used: short-term, high-intensity sprints (n = 2), intermittent sprints (n = 6), time trials (n = 10), open-end tests (n = 7) and graded exercise tests (n = 2). Pre-cooling had a larger effect on performance in hot (+6.6%, g = 0.62) than in moderate temperatures (+1.4%, g = 0.004). The largest performance enhancements were found for endurance tests like open-end tests (+8.6%, g = 0.52), graded exercise tests (+6.0%, g = 0.44) and time trials (+4.2%, g = 0.44). A similar effect was observed for intermittent sprints (+3.3%, g = 0.43), whereas performance changes were smaller during short-term, high-intensity sprints (-0.5%, g = 0.03). The most promising cooling methods were cold drinks (+15.0%, g = 1.68), cooling packs (+5.6%, g = 0.70) and a cooled room (+10.7%, g = 0.49), whereas a cooling vest (+4.8%, g = 0.31) and water application (+1.2%, g = 0.21) showed only small effects. With respect to aerobic capacity, the best results were found in the subjects with the highest VO(2max) (high +7.7%, g = 0.65; medium +3.8%, g = 0.27). There were four studies analyzing endurance-trained athletes under time-trial conditions, which, in a practical sense, seem to be most relevant. Those studies found an average effect on performance of 3.7% (g = 0.48).
In summary, pre-cooling can effectively enhance endurance performance, particularly in hot environments, whereas sprint exercise is barely affected. In particular, well trained athletes may benefit in a typical competition setting with practical and relevant effects. With respect to feasibility, cold drinks, cooling packs and cooling vests can be regarded as best-practice methods.
Clear evidence of the benefits for a range of pre-cooling strategies undertaken in the laboratory setting exists, which suggest that these strategies could be employed by athletes who compete in hot environmental conditions to improve exercise safety, reduce their perceived thermal stress and improve sports performance."
So, by all means, keep your canine athletes in shape throughout the entire year. Acclimate them and remember to do it gradually and take your time with it. Use all the means you can get your hands on to pre-cool them prior to going on the field. Cool down religiously. Remember you are responsible for your dog's well being at all times. Let's make this season successful and safe for our partners!