Fit to Win

AKC Gazette breed column: English Foxhounds — If your dog’s best feature is his movement, then get fit for the win!

This year I joined a fitness challenge. My goals were to exercise more, eat better foods, lose weight, and enjoy a healthier lifestyle. This challenge was with a group of canine agility enthusiasts and lasted 16 weeks. I made it through the challenge and realized how much my agility runs and handling skills were improved as a result of my improved physical fitness.

Few will argue that improving physical fitness will help someone’s abilities when running a dog in agility. However, recently during a conversation with a fitness friend who also shows her dogs in conformation, I realized I was doing something that might benefit someone in the breed ring as well. How many times has it been said, “Your dog is such a beautiful mover, but you need to learn to move your dog better in the ring”? Often a handler says to herself, “Wow, I need to move faster—we are in such a small ring, and I don’t have good footing to run faster.”

If you evaluate all the factors, there are things we cannot change, and things we can change. We cannot change the size of the ring or the footing. We condition our dogs to gait on a show lead, cueing the dog with our body motion into the trotting gait at the best speed that will accentuate his reach and drive.

Because our dogs cue off our body motions, the one thing you can change is your ability to move yourself, by increasing your “reach and drive.”

As with starting any physical-fitness program, first be sure to get the OK from your doctor or healthcare provider.

You want to be able to start moving without thought into the appropriate gait and speed to cue your dog into that perfect gait. We can perform various strides within one speed by increasing our stride length and the time our feet are on the ground propelling us forward. Moving faster with short, quick steps is not always the answer as much as moving at the same speed but with increased stride length so that the dog increases his stride and moves out with better reach and drive.

I found the treadmill the most helpful in learning how to do this so I could train my body to perform this immediately and without thought. Start walking on the treadmill and note the speed. After a warm-up, increase the speed of the treadmill, but continue walking. Think about the muscle groups you’re using, relaxing the hips increasing the stride length, keeping each foot longer on the belt, and propelling forward with the toes. I maintain this walk for as long as I can then return to a comfortable walk, and then I repeat this at the jogging level. With continued workouts I can start immediately into this gait and maintain it for longer time.

Each person will be different, but I am only five feet two inches, and I can remain at a walk at the speed of 4.5 on a treadmill very comfortably—and that is moving out at a walk. Being able to go into this gait cues my dogs to reach out in their movement even in small rings, and we are both more surefooted in the turns.

If your dog’s best feature is his movement, then get fit for the win! —K.E. (November 2013), English Foxhound Club of America