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You're doing too much with your young agility dog

Updated: Jan 30

Did I catch your attention? Did you think 'uummmm is she talking about me?' or were you like 'nah that's not me!'.

So I have pretty strong ideas about what is, and is not appropriate for dog. And generally I try not to impose those ideals onto people unless they ask. But given the popularity of my post 'What's the problem with overtraining?' and what I have been seeing both in person, and online lately I felt like this blog post was due!

I guess I'll start with letting you know something that I often overthink, and sometimes get upset about the things I overthink. I'm often not that happy with my dog's competition performance, because I know it could be better. It could be better if I was able to do as much fitness as I would like, afford more frequent hydrotherapy, and physio treatments. But most of the time the thing I overthink and feel bad about is that they would do better if I trained them more. Part of the training is me being time poor (you know, lot's of dogs, a tiny human, house to try to keep liveable, a couple of jobs and all that....). But a large part of it is that I want my dog's to be happy, healthy, and not sore. Well into their old age. And a big part of them is not destroying their body doing too much agility.

Chace: Doing very well for a 13 year old! Definitely looking older and dropping muscle, but not unsound or overly arthritic anywhere.

You cannot deny that agility is physically demanding. And for many dogs, unfortunately, the majority of their physical exercise is agility training, and competition with a few walks thrown in. And that's not ok. It's even more 'not OK' when that dog is young.

Research has suggested:

  • too much of activities like stair climbing can increase the risk of joint issues like hip dysplasia

  • Activities like running after balls and sticks are risk factors in developing joint conditions like OCD and knee issues

  • Jarring high impact concussive activities (like jumping) may be a risk factor for joint issues

All of these things are physical movements that agility dogs do, highly repetitively.

Dog's physical maturity is not complete when growth plates close. Whilst we often talk about growth plate closure being a measure of physical maturity, I think this is because it is one we can measure with radiograph. When a bone finishes growing, the point at which growth occurs (the growth plate) which we can see on an X-ray as a line, closes. This means the line is no longer visible, and that bone will not get any longer. Different bones in the body finish growing at different times. The size of the dog also impacts when the bones finish growing.

The cool thing is that you can do an X-ray of the tibia (shin bone) to have a vet assess if the growth plate is closed, and best they can advise that your dogs bones have finished growing. BUT.... after the bones finish growing it takes times for the muscles, tendons, and ligaments to finish stretching, and strengthening. And then it takes even more time for the musculature to develop to its complete level physically. So this means that whilst your border collies growth plates may have closed at 17 months, it's realistically going to take quite some time after that until they have developed the soft tissues strength and structure to support and move that musculature. And this is what controls your dogs movement, and helps hold joints stable - the soft tissues.

The other thing to consider is that some orthopaedic issues do not emerge until teenage hood in dogs. Flor example Flori had clinically perfect knees (checked by multiple people) until after her first season, and the hormone surge that that season bought. This impacted many of her joint, where she became hyper mobile and very flexible. In particular her knees - both patella's started luxating. This is a complex example, as we now think that Flori has a complicating genetic disorder (Ehlers Danlos Syndrome).... BUT you know what? had I been doing lot's of agility training with her over this time (10-12 months) I could have had serious long term impacts on her knees in particular. Currently Flori is a healthy fit 5 year old dog that leads a very normal, unmedicated life that includes agility (jumpers) competition and training occasionally, and high level nose work competition as well as being a school support dog.

Young dogs need exercise to physically develop. But here's what the research, and recommendations suggest: mild to moderate amounts of running, wandering, sniffing, free exercise over natural terrain at the puppies preferred pace.

And here's the 'controversial opinion's'....

  • I see young (9-18 month old) agility puppies doing far too much training. In terms of times over the week, seminars and workshops in weekends, and classes.

  • I see young dogs (18 months - 2.5 years) competing far too much, and to a high standard that suggests that they have had ALOT of training. Too much training.

I'm not a person who thinks making dogs up to champions and grand champions young is something to be proud of. Yes, be proud of the work, and the dedication. But do NOT have a goal to make your dog up at the age of three. This is just not fair to your dog, and it's long term physical well being.

Your dog only has a finite number of jumps in their entire career, and you don't know what that number will be. First and foremost care for the physical health of your canine family member. So you can enjoy them being sound, happy and not in pain for a long, long time.

Research and further reading:

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