4 Steps to Prepare Your Dog to Play a Sport

Exceptional Canine: Active Dog

By Jennifer Viegas for Exceptional Canine

Is your dog the canine version of Usain Bolt, sprinting faster than his neighborhood peers? Or maybe he's like Gabby Douglas, jumping over hurdles with ease.

Even if your pet is just an athlete wannabe, you can get him in good shape by taking the right steps in these four, easy-to-remember categories: veterinary care, nutrition, exercise and training.

4 Steps to Prepare Your Dog to Play a Sport

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #1: Visit Your Vet

Before starting any exercise or sports training program with your dog, it's always a good idea to visit the veterinarian. "You want to make sure your dog is ready to exercise," explains Susan Nelson, clinical associate professor at Kansas State University's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. "You may have to start slow to build up their endurance, but once you get started, it can be fun."

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #2: Select the Right Food

Charlie, a Jack Russell Terrier who belonged to Virginia-based veterinarian Dr. Katy Nelson, more than passed that first veterinary visit and was "an extraordinarily active dog." Nelson says that Charlie couldn't wait to run, swim and hunt during the autumn months, which Nelson's family spent in southern Louisiana. But Charlie was so active that he seemed to burn calories faster than he could take them in.

Nelson decided to feed Charlie an "active formula" dog food, meant for canines like her speedy boy, and that "made a huge difference in his energy level and his physique," she says. Such foods have sources of fat, protein and carbohydrates in appropriate proportions to meet the energy needs of active dogs and optimize their performance. In many of these foods, high-quality protein sources comprise about 29 percent of the mixture, to support lean muscles. For sustained energy, the formulas may have about 18 percent fat, which can include fish oil to help maintain healthy joints and minimize inflammation.

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #3: Choose Appropriate Exercises

The size and breed of your dog along with his particular likes and dislikes can help to determine what sports are best. "It really depends on what the dog can do," Susan Nelson says. "For short-legged or arthritic dogs, walking is good. Running is good for bigger dogs who are in good shape — but how much running you can do depends on the dog and how in shape it is. Remember, you can't run a Basset Hound like you would a Great Dane."

If you have a small dog, walking up to a mile or two each day is about the limit. Larger dogs can generally handle three or more miles of walking or running. As a basic guideline, Susan Nelson says that "dogs should get exercise at least twice a day, generally around 15 to 20 minutes each session for small dogs, and 30 to 40 minutes or more for large dogs."

Dog Sports Preparation Tip #4: Train for Sports Gains

Your dog's breed also might affect how you handle training. Did you know that your dog's breed can influence how he responds to cues?

Márta Gácsi of Eötvös University, Hungary, for example, worked with a team of researchers to examine how various dog breeds made sense of the human pointing gesture. The scientists found that gun and sheep dogs were better at following a pointed finger than hunting hounds, earth dogs (dogs used for underground hunting), livestock guard dogs and sled dogs.

Don't forget that mental training is just as important, since dogs are incredibly smart. "Dogs are in a special way tuned in to humans," explains Jozsef Topal, who works in the Institute for Psychological Research at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. "They are interested in finding out how we think, and they are able to do it by reading our subtle communicative behaviors. So if you are a responsible dog owner, you should devote time for communicating with your dog, not just by talking to it, but also by solving problems together — which may include training tasks, playing, or other dog activities."

Canine Athlete Initiative: Get Your Dog Started!

The American Kennel Club (AKC) recently launched the Canine Athlete Initiative, a major public awareness campaign. "Whether your dog joins you on your morning run or participates in weekend agility competitions, all dogs are canine athletes," says Dr. Shila Nordone, chief scientific officer of the AKC's Canine Health Foundation. Visit the AKC's website for educational materials on the most popular dog sports, including agility, dock diving, flyball, Frisbee, herding, hunting/field trials, lure coursing, obedience, rally, sledding and tracking.

NOTE: Additional information on several dog sports & activities can also be found on the Canada's Guide to Dogs website under the Sports & Activities section.


Jennifer Viegas is the managing editor of The Dog Daily. She is a journalist for Discovery News, the news service for the Discovery Channel. She has written more than 20 books on animals, health and other science-related topics. Jennifer is a frequent contributor to Exceptional Canine.