In the sporting-dog world, there are athletes…and then there are athletes.
At the top of the list among dogs whose names deserve to be offset in italics are sled dogs, which may run hundreds of miles over the course of a single race. At full speed. While pulling a sled with a full-grown man standing on it.
But they don’t do that on grit and willpower alone. They need to be conditioned to develop the extreme endurance mandated by the sport. I wanted to find out how a sled-dog conditioning program stacked up to a serious bird hunter’s conditioning. So, I found two guys who fit those descriptions: Dr. Arleigh Reynolds who resides in Alaska...and me. Reynolds is a research scientist for the Purina company, a veterinarian, and a sled-dog racer with back-to-back world championships (2013 and 2014).
Spoiler alert: Dr. Reynolds does a lot more in-depth, intense, and ongoing conditioning of his dogs than I do with mine, by an order of magnitude. Still, he gave my program good marks. Let’s sketch out Reynolds’ approach first.
There is essentially no time of the year, barring severe weather, when Reynolds’ dogs are not involved in some phase of conditioning or racing. Most dogs start in the summer on a dog-walking wheel, which if you’ve never seen one, is similar to the wheels horse trainers use to exercise their horses.
“The dogs run in a circle, 16 miles a day, three days a week. It takes a couple hours per dog, but they love it,” Reynolds says. “We start off slowly, then increase the speed as their conditioning improves.”
During the occasional warm summer, the dogs may also be put in a pool with a continuous current and allowed to swim against the current. During a more typical cool summer, swimming lessons get skipped and the dogs graduate to free runs on the trails around his home. “Again,” Reynolds says, “they love it.”
Notice any common denominators here? One sure jumped out at me: Dogs love to exercise. They love to run and pull. However, Reynolds cautions that you have to start them off slow, and you should never throw a dog into intense exercise if he’s overweight. Reynolds advises to get the dog’s weight down first with diet and light exercise, then build the intensity.
By the time the dogs have been hooked to the wheel and run on conditioning runs, they’re in pretty good shape, so Reynolds starts the schooling phase of teaching his dogs to handle as part of a team. Although the goal is to teach the dogs commands like “gee” and “haw,” conditioning is still part and parcel of every session. His dogs are hooked up first to four dog teams, progressing to larger teams as they gain experience.
Ultimately, they’re incorporated into full-size, 18-dog teams. By now they are in superb physical condition, experienced, and ready to race.
HIIT Training for Dogs
Dr. Reynolds and I have a similar interest: Physical conditioning as applied to humans, as well as to dogs. I’ve suspected for several years now that the growing popularity of short bursts of high-intensity exercise — High Intensity Interval Training, or HIIT — might apply to dogs, too. I was pleased that Reynolds agreed with me, with one caveat: A “short” session of high-intensity exercise for a dog may be considerably longer than that for a human.
I don’t condition my dogs year-round, but around May of each year, I hook them to roading harnesses very similar to the ones sled-dog racers use. I clip a short length of logging chains to a stout elastic cord attached to the back of the harness, then take the dogs for short runs — approximately 25 minutes — a couple days a week. By the end of the summer, I’m typically running my dogs three and (if they’re lucky) four days a week. The dogs love it, I enjoy getting out with them, and it certainly seems to keep them fit for the upcoming hunting season. But I wasn’t sure, given how intense and ongoing Dr. Reynolds’ program was, if it would pass muster.
In fact, he thought it was a very good program. But he did have some suggestions. First, start with light weights and slowly add weight. Add too much weight too soon, and you risk stressing or even tearing your dog’s joints. I’ve found that about 20 percent of the dog’s weight is about maximum, and Reynolds agreed. Make sure you run your dogs in relatively open areas where the chains won’t get wrapped around vegetation, and most importantly, don’t go anywhere near a deep body of water. Dogs don’t understand the concept of anchors, and a dog dragging a chain can easily hop into a pond or lake and be pulled under.
The upshot is I’ve tried a number of ways to condition my dogs over the years, and a harness and chains provide essentially the same benefits of roading off an ATV, minus the expense.
Diet, Diet, Diet
Finally, Dr. Reynolds and I talked about diet. He had a lot to say about this — he has a PhD in canine nutrition, after all — but here’s the gist of what he said.
First, keep your dog’s weight within the ideal parameters for the breed. In other words, if you own an English setter or an English pointer, you should be able to easily feel the ribs as you run your hands lightly down either side of the dog’s spine. The mound between the two wings of the iliac crest (the bony protrusions on either side of a dog’s hips) should feel flat or slightly rounded. And finally, the belly should be tucked up. Incidentally, these proportions apply to heavyset dogs like retrievers as well, although the dog’s hourglass figure will be less pronounced.
Reynolds makes a convincing pitch for high-protein, high-fat dog food. “The cost of performance food per calorie is what you should pay attention to,” he says. He also recommends feeding a performance diet year-round. “It takes eight to 12 weeks for a dog to adapt to a performance diet,” he says. “Good food actually changes the structure of the muscle. If you switch back and forth, you ruin that effect.” That, in fact, is exactly how I feed my own dogs, with the same high-quality food year-round. Should any of them appear to be gaining weight during the off-season, I simply cut back the amount.