Trial Day Warm-Up Tips

Jul 11, 2017

If you’ve been following my canine conditioning seminars, webinars, or postings, you know how important it is to properly warm-up your dog before engaging in high-energy activity. Not only does a proper warm-up help your dog reach peak performance, it’s also one of the simplest ways to help prevent injuries.

When teaching about the benefits of a proper warm-up and cool down, people frequently ask me what I do to warm-up my own dog before competition. Below I've listed my typical response.

Usually my dog Knoxx is crated in the car while we wait our turn to enter the competition field. When we have about 15 minutes before it’s our turn, I get him out of the car to get ready.

Warm-Up Goals
During the warm-up, my main goal is to gradually raise Knoxx’s heart rate and get his muscles warmed up through activity. The amount and intensity of the activity will totally depend on how warm it is outside and how high the humidity is. If it’s already a warm and muggy day, our warm-up will be very short. If it’s a cold day, then we’ll take more time. I always observe Knoxx closely during my warm-up and use that as a guide for what we do rather than warming up for a certain number of minutes. Some of the things that I pay attention to include the way he’s panting, how pink the inside of his ears are, and how attentive he is to me.

Usually dogs aren’t allowed off leash on trial day unless they are on the field competing. If I can find a place away from all the activity where I can exercise off leash, I’ll do that. Typically, however, most of what I do is on leash. I start easy and slowly, gradually building intensity as we go. Below are the most common exercises that we do.

Warm-Up Exercises
1) Lunging: I begin by having Knoxx trot circles around me, lunging him like a horse. I hold the leash and have him trot in circles in both directions. If my leash is only 6 feet long, I’ll walk along with him in small circles to increase the size of the circle that he’s trotting. Since he’s usually been in the crate for awhile, it’s important that we have plenty of time to warm-up muscles that might be tight.

2) Heeling: Once Knoxx starts to loosen up a bit, I ask for some focused heeling. It’s important that I keep him mentally alert and focused on me during part of my warm-up. Since he has to be focused on me during competition, I don’t want him to think our warm-up is just fun and games or a time to blow me off.

3) Tugging: During our focused heeling, I’ll periodically reward him by tugging with a ball on a string. (He prefers a squishy ball over a regular tug.) This tugging also serves as an extra warm-up for his neck, shoulder, and jaw muscles. (These are very important muscles to warm up when doing protection sports. When we tug, however, I don’t want him thrashing his head and neck from side to side. I try to keep the reward level with his head and neck, trying my best to keep a fairly straight spine.)

4) Changing Positions (stationary): After doing some heeling, trotting, and tugging, I then have Knoxx stand in front of me and go through his positions (e.g., sit, down, stand, etc.). We actually do these positions in competition, and so our warm-up is a great sport-specific warm-up activity. While doing this, I periodically reward with more tugging.

5) Changing Positions (moving): Next I will ask Knoxx to go from a heel position, to a front position, and then back to a heel position. I keep having him switch positions and move from side to side. Again this warms up the muscles while also keeping him attentive and focused on me. I periodically reward with tugging.

6) Walking Backwards: When Knoxx is standing in front of me in the “front” position, I then walk towards him, making him walk backwards. This is another sport specific warm-up activity. When Knoxx is guarding the decoy during competition, he stands facing towards the decoy with his head between the decoy's legs. During the “escort” phase of our French Ring exercises, Knoxx actually does a lot of walking backwards. To mimic these movements and warm up the muscles in a very sport-specific way, I include having him walk backwards in our pre-competition warm-up.

7) Increasing Intensity: By now after our lunging, heeling, tugging, and changing of positions, Knoxx is panting harder. His heart rate is rising, and he’s much more ready to compete compared to when I first got him out of the car. In French Ring, however, the very first thing we do when we enter the ring is our jumping exercises. The jumps can be quite demanding, and so I usually want to do more during our warm-up than just heeling, tugging, and so forth.

8) Retrieves: To increase the intensity and prepare for our jumps, I’ll either have a longer leash with me, take my dog off leash, or let the leash trail behind him as we do some short retrieves. (I throw the ball and always let it stop rolling before I let him get it.) Knoxx is very driven in his retrieves for his ball, and so the intensity definitely starts to increase when we do this.

9) Short Sprints: Finally, I like to have Knoxx sprint a short distance from touch pad (or place mat) to touch pad. I’ll either have him off leash or use a 25 to 30 foot leash for this as he now begins to run from place to place. For my touch pads, I either use two Frisbees on the ground or rubber horse feed buckets turned upside down. By adding some short sprints to our warm-up, Knoxx is now fully prepped to enter the ring and begin with his jumps. By now, it’s usually time to walk up to the gate and wait for our turn to enter the trial field.

Transitioning to the Field
Now here is where you need to be careful!!! After doing a great warm-up, I don't want to just stand there at the gate, standing stationary waiting my turn! If your dog just stands there for too long, you lose the benefits of the warm-up that you just did! This is when I like to mix up some obedience with frequent rewards to keep Knoxx on his toes both physically and mentally.

I’ll go back to our beginning warm-up activities with a focused heel, some tugging, and moving quickly from a heel to a front position and then back to a heel. I can also do some spins to the right and left for some dynamic lateral stretching. I might also do some other dynamic stretches. My main goal here is to just keep my dog moving while at the same time making sure he stays attentive and focused on me.

And by now, it’s time to enter the field! I make sure I have no tug, ball or toys in my pockets before entering the ring. As I approach the gate and enter the field, I take off Knoxx’s leash and collar, handing them over to our French Ring deputy judge. I then step onto the trial field and hope all of our hard work and months of training pay off!

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