Strenuous exercise for human athletes can often mean stiff, sore muscles the next day. However, soreness can be minimized or avoided with appropriate conditioning and good recovery techniques. The same principles apply for canine athletes who can also become sore after a vigorous training session. By ensuring that they are conditioned properly and have the resources they need for recovery, you can help your performance dog avoid sore and stiff muscles after exercise.
Checkup First, Then Train
Before starting more intense training, it is a good idea to have a veterinarian examine your dog and make sure they’re well enough to perform at the standard required. You should also assess their dietary needs and make sure they’re eating a high-quality, highly digestible diet that provides sufficient protein to build and repair muscles.
A Pain-Free Recovery Starts with Conditioning
Like us, if your dog is asked to go from a sleep-all-day couch potato to running 10 miles, they’re probably going to find it hard to get out of their kennel the next day. If your performance dog hasn’t been exercising for a while, or their training sessions have been lighter because it’s the off-season, it’s important to gradually ease up to their full training program.
Slow and Steady Conditioning
When introducing your dog to a new exercise program, start with short, low-intensity sessions and gradually increase the distance, time and intensity. This will gradually and safely strengthen your dog’s muscles, while hopefully avoiding soreness. If your dog does show signs of sore and stiff muscles (that aren’t injury related), try cutting back the amount of training or exercise until they’re conditioned well again.
Denali Sled Dog Conditioning
A good example of performance dog conditioning can be found in Alaska with the National Park Service sled dogs. When the Denali National Park Service trainers transition their sled dogs from summer sled demonstrations to winter patrols, they organize training and conditioning programs. They train the dogs to ensure that they know and respond to commands and condition them to build endurance and strength. The Denali NPS sled dogs can eventually run up to 30 miles per day, but they start their conditioning program by running 3 miles a day. They increase the mileage each week until they are comfortable running the 30 miles. The staff also does health checks every morning before the dogs run, and if they have sore muscles, they do a before- or after-run massage or physical therapy.
Know When to Take a Break
Some dogs who are obsessed with performing (e.g., working livestock or hunting) may push through pain, so it’s important that you always pay attention to your dog during exercise. If they’re lagging behind or they stop repeatedly, they probably need to rest. Excessive panting means they need a break and could also be a sign of overheating.
Don’t Forget the Water
Water is essential for a healthy dog that performs and recovers well. Water helps maintain a normal body temperature, lubricates and cushions joints, and helps food digestion and nutrient absorption, among other things. Dehydration can reduce performance and can lead to injury or illness, so water should be supplied during and after exercise to keep dogs hydrated.
Conditioning your performance dog well and providing them with appropriate nutrition can help them recover and prevent muscle soreness after exercise. However, if your dog does seem sore after exercise (stiff or limping), monitor them for 24 hours. If they don’t get better, have your veterinarian examine them.
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