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What's the problem with overtraining?

Updated: Jun 2, 2023

Many of us are agility addicts. We structure aspects of our lives around our hobby, and select dogs specifically for agility. We spend evenings at club, weekends at shows, and have lot's of dog agility friends who understand our passion. There's online classes, lessons, workshops. There really are so many options these days!

Here's the thing. We choose to do agility, not out dogs, and there is definitely a problem with doing too much agility.

What is overtraining? Overload vs. overtraining

Overtraining is defined as excessive training. In the athletic world there is a principle called overload principle. This is when to improve physical performance, the demands placed upon the body are increased. An example of this is when training strength, a human will lift progressively heavier weights. In dog agility we think about in training being able to perform a sequence as long, or longer, as needed in competition. And then we might do this sequence more times than is needed in order to be over prepared for a competition.

Here's the thing. These days athletes both professional, and amateur, usually have a training plan that includes sports specific skill training, cross training, and scheduled rest days. There is also planning across the year to include large rest periods, and preparation with increasing and tapering of training before big events.

Our canine athletes, however enthusiastic, do not choose when, where, and how much agility they do. We decide that for them. In my opinion there are many dogs that are doing overall way too much agility. Both training, and competition.

What's the problem with too much agility?

There are many physical, and psychological negative impacts to overtraining.

Overtraining can cause performance to plateau or decrease rather than improve. This could look like less strength, agility, and endurance. Overtraining can also slow reaction time and running speed.

Exercising too much without resting enough in between can lead to low testosterone levels and high levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. These hormonal changes can be associated with loss of muscle tissue, and an increase in fat. It can also result in muscle damage, that can turn into injury. When we train, our muscles routinely have small micro tears as a result of the physical activity. This is normal, and actually a part of building muscle (in terms of putting some physical stress on the muscle). However if the body is not given time to repair these microtears, then there is the potential for them to become injuries, and / or other areas of the body to compensate for the torn muscles and become sore or injured.

Overtraining can also show negative psychological impacts such as:

  • Prolonged general fatigue.

  • Increase in tension, depression, anger or confusion.

  • Inability to relax.

  • Poor-quality sleep.

  • Lack of energy, decreased motivation, moodiness.

  • Not feeling joy from things that were once enjoyable.

Here's the thing... many of the things above are not easily observable! Many of our 'high drive agility dogs' could be described as having an inability to relax... is this a result of a lack of relaxation training, their inbuilt genetic temperament, or have we created this with overtraining? Most agility people haven't developed an eye for subtle difference in movement and stance, or being able to tell if a muscle is tight or sore.

How is Evo's stance? Does he appear sore anywhere? What can we tell about his emotional state in this picture?

What's an appropriate amount of agility?

This is not a one thing fits all. Individual dogs need different things both in relation to their physical health, and emotional health. To help establish what is an appropriate amount of agility, and training for your dog you should use your own judgement, but also the advice of trusted professionals such as a animal physio, qualified hydrotherapist, sports specific/ortho/rehab vet etc.

I'll make special mention of young dogs here, because I routinely see young agility dogs being overtrained. This is a serious issue because even after growth plates close a young dogs body takes time to physically mature: connective tissue stretches to accommodate growth, muscles need to develop, and stability around joints is really not developed until these things happen. I'm not a fan of seeing young dogs 12 months or less doing contacts, weaves, and sequencing.

Look after those agility babies!

So guidelines? What, and how much should you do?

  • Dogs should not be competing every available show. 2 weekends a month is alot, let alone 3 or 4.

  • Dogs should have at least two agility breaks a year. This is 6-8 weeks with NO agility. No workshops, seminars, shows, training on equipment of any kind.

  • Dogs should be cross trained to ensure they are fit enough for agility, not doing agility for fitness.

  • Dogs need a complete physical break after a show. No training the day after, nothing or just a walk.

  • In a week a dog should be doing decompression walks, fitness, and agility training. Agility training and fitness training sessions should have a day after with no physically demanding training to let muscles recover.

  • Baby agility dogs (12 months and younger) should be doing VARIED training like tricks, life skills, cooperative care, fitness, and some simple agility skills

  • Young agility dogs (12 months - 20 months) should be minimizing agility training not training every day. You should be doing as much fitness, or more than agility training.

  • Your dog needs physical and mental breaks. It's not ok to do training or shows every weekend e g agility show ine weekend, then an agility workshop, then a nosework comp, then an agility workshop. You need decompression weekends! Physical and mental burnout is a thing.

Baby puppies (12 months and younger)

Young dogs should be trained only in small sessions, avoiding highly repetitive training and concussive movements. The focus should be teaching a variety of skills, movements, and muscle memory for positions that will be helpful later in life. They should have minimal equipment specific training (you can teach the concepts!), except for calmness and control around equipment.

Young dogs (12 months - 18 months)

Young dogs will start training equipment, but this should be a small part of their week, with short and varied sessions. They should also, like adult dogs, be doing walks, decompression activities, and starting cross training such as fitness sessions. Generally I start young dogs with tunnels, then wing jump work, then foundation contact training. Generally I wont do full height contacts, or weave training, or equipment sequencing, until AT LEAST 16 months. These are the most physically demanding activities that contain the most risk for injury.

Adult dogs: Over a week

It's important to have quiet days after intense physical activity, such as Monday after an agility show, or after agility training. This allows for muscle recovery. Your week should also include decompression activities such as longer sniffy walks, and cross training such as fitness exercises. For this reason more than two agility training sessions in a week would be considered overtraining.

Adult dogs: Over a month

Over a month three or more weekends doing agility competition, or large amounts of training like a seminar or workshop could be considered overtraining. I aim for two, or less agility specific weekends in a month.

Adult dogs: Over a year

Dogs need breaks, just like us humans. Over a year you should plan AT LEAST two substantial breaks for your dog. These should be 4-8

Final thoughts

I'll repeat something I've said before: your dog only has a limited number of jumps in their lifetimes. We don't know what that number is.

Remember your canine teammate is also your family member. They need breaks, couch weekends, long decompression walks.... things in their lives other than agility!

References / related reading

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