Conditioning Retrievers For Field Trials

black Labrador running through the water

Trainers of retrievers often lament there is not enough time to train and condition dogs, yet both are needed to prepare dogs for highly competitive field trial stakes.

A combined approach enhances performance and also prevents injury. 

Pro trainer Mike Lardy of Handjem Retrievers in Montello, Wisconsin, took time a few years ago to add a comprehensive conditioning program to the regimen of 26 Labrador Retrievers training for field trials. Jennell Appel, DVM, CCRT, a canine rehabilitation therapist and founder of the SportVet Canine Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine Mobile Clinic, developed the program and monitored the dogs’ progress.

“Field trials are incredibly competitive and the difference between winning and getting a JAM (Judges Award of Merit) can be quite small. Anything that gets you a 1 percent advantage is worth doing. Field trial tests are physically demanding, and a dog’s ability to discriminate scent and think clearly can be profoundly affected by his level of conditioning,” says Lardy, a Retriever Hall of Fame member who has trained over 100 Field Champions and won a record seven National Retriever Championships.

At Handjem Retrievers, dogs were divided into compatible groups with older dogs receiving shorter exercise timed intervals than younger dogs. The speed of the exercises varied based on the dogs’ sizes and condition status. “I think many dogs do better with less training and more conditioning,” Lardy reflects. “Conditioning not only physically prepares a dog for training and competition, it also mentally strengthens them.”

Today’s Breeder interviewed Lardy and Dr. Appel about the conditioning program used with the Handjem Labrador Retrievers. Here are their insights about how to effectively combine conditioning and training.

Q: Should a dog be physically fit going into this conditioning program?

Dr. Appel: The purpose of this program is to build strength and endurance at the dog’s own pace and ability. Thus, it doesn’t matter the level of conditioning a dog starts the program. A dog that has consistently been involved in a conditioning program but has taken a few months off will start at the same level as a dog coming into the program for the first time. However, this dog will advance through the program faster than the dog that has never been conditioned.

Q: What is the training timeline of this conditioning program?

Dr. Appel: Although retriever trials are year-round, the easiest time to begin this regimen for dogs and trainers alike is early January. Since most trials get into full swing in March, this gives trainers a full eight weeks leading into a busy trial season to focus on getting dogs conditioned to help prevent injuries.

Dogs that have never participated in a conditioning program begin with three times a week sessions until they reach a maintenance phase. This can take from eight to 12 weeks, depending on the rate at which the dog progresses through the program.

Q: What are the facets of the conditioning program?

Dr. Appel: This program is designed to build a dog’s strength, balance and endurance. For starters, a land-based harnessed roading system encourages muscle strengthening and improved cardiopulmonary performance. Dogs are harnessed and connected to an ATV or four-wheeler via a bungee system that helps maintain a consistent trotting pace. This pace is critical for building muscle and cardiac endurance. The first week consists of a 10-minute trot at an average of 5 to 8 mph. Time intervals are increased every week until dogs reach a maintenance level of 30 to 35 minutes.

Endurance swimming helps to build cardiac endurance and core strengthening. One of the most demanding exercises for dogs, swimming uses every muscle of the body as well as their core musculature. Swimming also stresses the cardiopulmonary system, especially when a dog retrieves a bird or bumper, as this decreases air flow to the airways. The goal of endurance swimming is for the dog to stay in the water beginning with three to five minutes and working up to 20 minutes.

Balance training works well with an inflatable peanut-shaped ball. Standing a dog on the ball promotes core and muscle strengthening and balance/proprioceptive awareness. To introduce the exercise, you should ask the dog to place the forelimbs on the ball and gradually advance to all four limbs using treats for motivation. This exercise begins with one-minute intervals during which the dog stands on the ball and balances on all four limbs. The time is slowly increased over the course of six to eight weeks until the dogs reaches a maintenance level of standing on the ball five minutes once weekly.

Q: What happens when a dog reaches maintenance status?

Dr. Appel: Once a dog has adapted to a maintenance level of conditioning, the goal is to evaluate subsequent conditioning based on the level of activity planned on a weekly basis for that dog. In other words, if a dog is performing in a trial and has only four days available for training and conditioning, you need to tailor the exercise program that week to not exhaust the dog physically yet still maintain the established level of condition. During weeks of heavy work, you may decrease the exercise time intervals, or during weeks of light work, you may increase the intervals and number of days. 

Q: What do you recommend for recovery and rest for retrievers in the program?

Dr. Appel: Minimum rest required is 24 hours. I typically recommend a full two days of rest following four days of training and a three-day trial, especially if the dog has performed in multiple stakes. 

Q: How does this program help to reduce the risk of injuries?

Dr. Appel: One of the leading causes of injury is muscle fatigue. Muscles aid in supporting joints as well as other soft tissues, such as tendons. When muscles become exhausted, they are not able to provide the same degree of protection. Therefore, exercises that will help strengthen a dog’s musculature and improve the ability of muscles to decrease stress placed on other tissues is critical for the prevention of injury.

Q: What is the role of nutrition in this program?

Dr. Appel: Nutrition plays an important role in stress management as well as augmenting recovery. The nutritional requirements of canine athletes are very different than those of the average pet dog. Athletes require a delicate balance of fat and protein, which aids in maintaining lean muscle mass, provides the proper fuel for their metabolic needs, and optimizes oxygen metabolism for increased endurance. I feed and recommend Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula for these reasons.

Mike Lardy: A top-notch retriever needs the best training, the best nutrition, the best health care, and the best conditioning possible. It’s hard to excel overall if any part of that foundation is missing. Our hardworking retrievers are fed Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula.

Q: How have you measured the success of this conditioning program?

Dr. Appel: During the first two years of this program, I focused on evaluating objective data using 26 professionally trained dogs. Muscle girth measurements and respiratory/recovery rates were evaluated at the conclusion of every month of the program. I then extrapolated duration and frequency of conditioning exercises based on those findings. The dogs gained 1 centimeter of mass on average every two weeks of conditioning and leveled out around the six-week mark.

Mike Lardy: We successfully competed with 10- and 11-year-old dogs after they participated in this conditioning program. I don’t think we could have done that prior to the program. For example, an 11 ½-year old retriever named “Jerry Lee” (FC-AFC Great Bunny of Fire) won an Amateur with owner Lynne Dubose. 

Q: Can this exercise program be used with other breeds that participate in other types of field trials and sports?

Dr. Appel: These exercises are beneficial for all canine athletes, as they help to build strength and cardiac endurance. It is important to tailor a conditioning program so it is somewhat sport specific. I encourage anyone working with a dog to reach out to a canine sports medicine specialist or rehabilitation therapist for guidance in creating a program specific for their dog.