E317: Petra Ford - "Fit for Obedience"

The level of fitness a dog needs to do well in obedience is often overlooked - but the level of core work and conditioning required for obedience exercises shouldn't be ignored. In this episode Petra and I talk about her approach to keeping her dogs fit for obedience.


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. An online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Petra Ford here with me to talk about physical conditioning for obedience. Hi Petra, welcome back to the podcast.

Petra Ford: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Melissa Breau: Super excited to catch up. To start us out, do you wanna just share a little bit about you and your current canine crew for anybody who may not be familiar with you?

Petra Ford: Sure. I am a human and doggy physical therapist. I train my dogs for competitive obedience as a very expensive hobby cause what else would I do with all my money? I have four Labrador Retrievers. My oldest is 12, he's obviously retired. He is an old man now. Very cute, old man. Zeal is also retired. He is going to be 11 in a few weeks. And then I have Zayna, she just turned seven not so long ago. She is my current competition dog and I have Zesty. He just turned three not so long ago and he is in training soon to start competing in novice hopefully.

Melissa Breau: I can't believe he's already three.

Petra Ford: I know.

Melissa Breau: It feels like you just got him like so fast.

Petra Ford: It goes so fast. It's really crazy. Super important to like really pay attention and focus when you're with them, right? Because it goes by in the blink of an eye.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. All right. So I wanted to have you on to chat a bit about the role that physical conditioning plays in our dog's abilities to perform competition obedience, kind of with the precision we really like. Right? Are there any common signs that maybe a dog is struggling with a skill, not because they don't understand, but because physically they can't do it?

Petra Ford: Yeah. So first off, anytime there's a change, any change at all, whether it's a change in training or a change in life, right? So for example, your dog used to jump in the car, now it's hesitant to jump in the car. That's a change your dog used to jump on and off the bed. Now it's hesitant to do that. That's a change in training. It gets really tricky. Cause typically as trainers, our first thought is something goes awry. It's a training issue.

Because of my background, my first thought is something goes awry, it's a physical issue. And the vast majority of the time it is again, especially if it's a change. So if my dog always had a fast sit in heeling and all of a sudden it's getting slow, my first thought is not, oh my dog's, you know, not paying attention or whatever.

My, my first thought is, oh is something brewing? So any change is always a red flag and it's really helpful if you get that checked out first and you know, worst, like in best case scenario, the dog is perfectly fine. Okay, now I know it's a training issue, but I would hate to treat it as a training issue when the root of the problem is that my dog's uncomfortable.

And then in general, dogs should have some sort of conditioning and definitely a strong core, just baseline to do the work we're asking them to do because people think, well, obedience is pretty benign and it, it kind of is, but still your dog is doing physical behaviors that they would not necessarily be doing in life left to their own devices and they're doing it repeatedly.

And the other piece is that oftentimes dogs strain themselves in life, right? So for example, chasing squirrels or chasing deer or playing ball or running up and down the stairs like a cuckoo head or any number of things. So let's say they just strain themselves a little bit. Well the problem is the next day they go and they train and maybe they train the next two or three days in a row.

So the injury. So that strain never has a chance to heal and then it kind of starts to get worse over time. So it's important to have a baseline of fitness and even then, you know, you have to keep an eye on it. Like Zesty was a perfect example, which I, which happened right after you guys asked me to do put together a webinar for the High Drive Dog series on keeping our high drive dog safe.

And it was literally a day or two later I was doing a run through with Zesty and novice and in my head I'm like, wow, he's really not driving hard. I said, oh maybe it must be, you know, that he's overthinking things cuz he's doing a run through. Luckily I videotaped it, I looked at the videotape and I said, oh wow, his backend really does not look too great. So was he working willingly and happily? Yes. Did he wanna work more? Absolutely. Would he have kept going? No doubt in my mind, but was he really sore? Yep, he was. So that's something to keep in mind too. People will be like, well they're not limping or they wanna work like look, see they're dying to work. Yep, all true. But the dog can still be sore and Zesty does have, you know, a pretty solid fitness base, but he's a little bit of a lunatic. So we constantly have to keep an eye on that. So there the change was when I watched him heeling, it did not look like it usually does.

So that was a tip off to me that, you know, I needed to check him out and get him fixed up. Makes sense. So how much is all of that about strength? How much is about body awareness? You know, kind of what role do those two pieces, strength and body awareness play in obedience? When we're talking about conditioning, It's typically more strength because the majority of people that do obedience because we have to teach our dogs where their back end is to line up for front and for finishes and how to do left turns inside of the figure eight, those kinds of things, they do tend to, whether they're doing it consciously or not teach our dogs rear end awareness, right? Like they have to know where their backend is in order to do straight fronts or finishes or heeling properly.

Which isn't to say some dogs can't benefit from more of it and I definitely always incorporate that into my fitness routine. But I would say that from what I've seen over the years, it's more an issue of just truly, mindfully conditioning their back end and their core. Those are, and sometimes the front end, depending on the dog's structure, I think a lot of times people in their minds think of obedience or running in the yard as exercise, right? They don't think of it as those are skills that the dog, so the dog is performing very specific skills like an athlete would but they still need very specific conditioning to target things like the core or specific kind rear end strengthening exercises, especially for what they need to do in obedience.

Melissa Breau: Are there, you know, particular obedience skills that kind of are the most stressful on our dog's bodies or that kind of require the most physical conditioning in order for the dog to be able to kind of perform them correctly? Can you kind of walk us through what some of those are and maybe what, what pieces in the conditioning world they kinda connect to?

Petra Ford: Well there are several, there's jumping, which I actually do some very specific jumping drills, which is, it's a combination of conditioning and just teaching them how to jump properly I think in obedience because you know, cuz it's not like agility where there's jump after jump after jump.

I think people just say, oh well all dogs just know how to jump, I'll just throw my dumbbell over the jump and he'll just figure it out. And they do, but it doesn't mean they can't do it better, that they can't jump in a way that where they use their body better and it's safer and their performance can improve. So I work on their jumping.

I definitely, like I mentioned with Zesty, they need a strong core, a strong backend to do heel to heel well, right? Because for a lot of dogs, if their head is up even a little bit, that shifts the weight back to their hind end, which means they have to drive off their core hind end in order to heel fronts and finishes.

It's really important to have a really strong core so that they have a nice tight sit and so that they're leaning forward and their spine is nice and straight because that gives you really nice square fronts and finishes. And then there are like the kind of turns, right, the tight turns, like the broad jump land and turns racing to pick up a dumbbell and kind of spinning around spinning to sit for the directed jumping.

Those exercises can be a little bit hard on their front end. So I'd like to do some neck and shoulder exercises to help stabilize that. I think the exercises themselves, I would not consider conditioning. I consider those more of like a repetitive strain, right? They're repeating a lot of the same movements over and over within a session day by day, week by week, month by month. So that's why I feel like they need to be conditioned underneath, you know, they need that strong conditioning to support the activities they do when they're training and trialing. So you kinda mentioned this earlier and I think you were on point. Like people associate dog sports injuries with things like agility or with flyball or with disc or whatever, right? Like the dog's doing crazy leafy things and jump up, jump jump whatever. And maybe they kind of overlook how hard obedience can actually be on our dog's body.

Melissa Breau: So what types of injuries are maybe common in obedience? Like what are we, what are we talking about? What are some things that may pop up? And then I know we've kind of been talking about prevention kinda all along. Can you, can you just talk a little bit more about kind of how that ties into the specific injuries maybe that we would see associated with obedience stuff?

Petra Ford: Yeah, so the injury across the board I, that's the most common is an ileopsoas muscle strain, which is basically the hip flexor, which is part of what I define as their core. What goes along with that is that their back muscles, their lower back muscles, just like with humans right, can get strained as well. So sometimes often you have both at the same time because they kind of work together. So that is definitely the most common injury I see in obedience with obedience dogs and that is the result of just not having a strong core. And the other part of that that's really challenging, and I see this quite a lot, is that people believe that they're doing core strengthening but they're doing it with poor form, right? So it would be that no different than it when you go to the gym or you go to physical therapy and they say to you suck in your stomach and stand up really tall so that you have good posture. The dogs need to have that as well when they're doing the exercises.

Otherwise they're inadvertently making their back tighter and actually predisposing themselves to the exact thing they're trying to prevent, which is a back and or ileopsoas muscle strain. So that's super important. That's probably the most common injury I would see in obedience dogs. Sometimes people always think it's gonna be their right shoulder, right? Because that's the inside leg for heeling. I almost never see that interestingly enough.

And I think that's cuz we really don't heel our dogs for hours and hours and they're not really leaning in that, you know, most dogs are heeling pretty square, but dogs, especially if they're structure if is a certain way where they're straight in the front, then they will get very tight and they could get a little sore in their neck and shoulders.

So that requires just a lot of stretching. You can do cookie stretches where they follow the food or manual stretching where you lay them down and you stretch them. Those are really the most common things I see across the board in performance obedience dogs. Yeah. So I know this isn't kind of on the list of questions, but I was thinking about it kinda as you're talking about all that.

So what type of a time commitment are you talking about? Like how much time in a week are you spending on conditioning versus training? Does that make sense? Yeah, so once you put in the initial work, it's, it's really not that hard. So for example, right now, so Zesty was sore, he had a couple weeks off so he could heal.

Now I'm back to working on his core and it's gotten weak. So what I'm really just doing is spending about 15 minutes once or twice a day every day until his core is really strong. And then at that point I'm just gonna do his core exercises like probably two to three times a week to maintain it again, just like about 15 minutes. So I think the easiest thing for people to do is just make, make it a habit, right? So if you say so I'm very fortunate I just do it at work cause I do rehab at work, so that's three days where my dog's guaranteed they're getting conditioning and I prioritize that. If it's gonna be a really busy day, I just go in a half hour early so I can do the two dogs that need it the most.

And then, you know, then there's enough time just to get their treadmill walk in or whatever. I also do their like aerobic conditioning, which is basically power leash walking or again I have the option of doing the underwater treadmill, which is fortunate, but really just power leash walking. If you do that even three times a week for an hour, that gives them a nice fitness space.

It's great exercise for you. So I run a lot on the days that I don't run my off days I walk. So those are the days I power walk my dogs, I love it, they love it, it's good for everybody. So I think it's, you don't have to dedicate an enormous amount of time. People are always like, oh gosh,

I'm not gonna have time. You know, I have to train, I have to do this. I believe me, I will. There aren't very many people that are busier than I am. So it's just a matter of priority. Like yesterday I drove pretty far for a pretty long group training session to prep for nationals. I had Zesty with me. I threw my equipment in the truck and instead part of his training session that day was just doing his core work.

So it's just a matter of prioritizing it and then you will find a way to fit it in. You just have to decide where you're gonna fit it in and how, and then just make it part of your routine and then it's really, you know, it's not that hard.

Melissa Breau: So part of the inspiration behind the podcast today, you're rerunning your awesome obedience workshops. Can you talk a little bit about how you've broken them down and kind of who should consider which workshops?

Petra Ford: Yeah, so I've broken them down into small categories. Like I think we, I just did the homework review for sits and finishes because if I try to do one webinar and everything, it would be hours and hours and hours long, right? So honestly there are pieces in each one that could benefit everyone.

It's just a matter of if you're trying to pick one over the other. When you look at your dog, where do you think that they're the weakest, right? So for example, if your dog fronts but always sits splayed or sits on a hip or their back is kind of rounded when they sit, then you might wanna pick the sits and finishes one I think.

I think it's jumping and drops, it's jumping with something else. So same like for instance, if with drops, if you feel like your dog is dropping slow or they drop with their front and then it takes, and then they ratchet down with their back end. Or if when they lay down they lay on a hip or their back is curled, then you might want to pick that one just as kind of a starting point, right? So I always look at where's my dog's the weakest, let me fix that. And, but then I also like to put in the foundation so that they have a little bit of conditioning for each of the different exercises. But if you just wanna dip your toes in something and you're really even not sure back, just, you know, toss a coin, pick one and at least it'll get you started and you'll kind of get an idea as to what's involved in the conditioning and that it really isn't that incredibly time consuming that it's perfectly doable. And the other part of it is the dogs really love it. They think it's super fun. All my dogs young and old love their conditioning time. They get tons of treats and to them they're just doing a whole set of fun tricks that they like and to win-win all around.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Anything else you wanna share about the workshops?

Petra Ford: Off the top of my head, no, but if something pops in my head.

Melissa Breau: Sounds good. You kinda mentioned in there, but I know you're heading to nationals this week. So first obviously best of luck, right? We're all cheering for you.

Petra Ford: Thank you.

Melissa Breau: Second, can you share a little bit about how you approach ensuring that your dog is in top shape for a major competition like this?

Petra Ford: Yeah, so first and foremost, bubble wrap, bubble wrap, bubble wrap. Save my dogs from themselves, right? She's, I have very high drive dogs, they tend to be a little kooky. So I'm very careful in the two to three months approaching the events I get. So I work on my dogs routinely at least once a week, but bleeding closer twice because I want to be sure that if anything is brewing, I pick it up immediately so I can resolve it immediately. I tend to be very careful about jumping. I don't always jump full height, I don't jump more than I need to again because it's just repetitive strain on the dog. I'm careful about footing, right? So if I'm training somewhere where I know it's very slippery, then I'm really thoughtful about maybe I'm not going to do a certain exercises just because my dog's gonna slide and it's gonna put strain on their body.

They're always somewhat conditioned. I ramp their conditioning up maybe about three months ahead up, up until about the month before and then I start tapering it down a little bit just so their body can rest and they're super fresh going in. So last week, I think early in the week she did a treadmill session, but that was it. I'm just doing a little bit of core work with her right now.

So I think the most important thing is, you know, be mindful of what you're doing with the dog. So when I hike her off leash, 99.9% of the time she ends up sore. So I am not gonna do that. I'll wait until the day after the nationals and then she can run off leash and she can break herself. So you wanna be, you just wanna be careful and if you do have the good fortune of having like a rehab person or a massage person that is, you know, accessible, some people don't in certain parts of the country, but if you do go to them ahead of time, like not a few days or a few weeks, cuz this happens to me all the time.

People, clients bring me their dog, it's a week or two before their big event and then the dog is sore or hurt. Well now I'm under the gun. We have a very short amount of time to get this dog well and in good form. So I drill it into my clients come to me two months ahead and then maybe every week or every other week so that if something is growing, we have plenty of time so that we can fix it. I also think about travel, right? So it's, if I were to drive straight through, it's a 10 hour drive, A lot of people do that. I don't, I don't think it's good for the dogs physically or mentally. I know that I get super stiff. So personally I like to break it up.

So I'm gonna go drive halfway to my friend's house for a few days and then drive the rest of the way. If you are driving the full distance, take stops, take the dog out, move the dog around, stretch the dog a little bit, and then be mindful that the next day, just like us, they, even though they're not gonna complain about it like we do or show it like we do, they are more than likely gonna be a little bit stiff. So if at all possible, give yourself an extra day or two just so your dog can kind of recover from the trip itself.

Melissa Breau: That makes sense. Anything kind of, other than just the conditioning angle or the physical angle that you kind of do leading up to a big trial like this?

Petra Ford: Well, training wise, I like to, the closer it gets, just really do everything possible to ensure that they're right all the time. So for example, yesterday there was a, someone did a set, set the ring up a certain way that when I looked, when I, I took Zayna in, I set her up for the go out, I looked out and I said to myself, that's really, really hard. Now, if it was three months out, would I try it with her? Absolutely. But it is not, it is a week before. I don't wanna risk her being wrong. I want her to be right. So she's super confident. So I just aborted, I simplified it and then I did it cuz I really just want her to be correct.

So that's all she has in her head, right, is that everything is good, she's right all the time. And then she's gonna go into the event really confident. And I think the closer it gets, the more people panic, the harder they train, the more pressure they put on the dog. And I understand that, I feel that too.

But I also know from many, many, many years of experience, it's way better to take the pressure off the closer you get to the event. To really protect their mental state.

Melissa Breau: Yes, that makes sense. All right, so again, I totally wish you guys the best of luck. Any final thoughts or key points you wanna leave listeners with?

Petra Ford: I think the biggest… So for decades, right? I've been doing rehab and I used to go around and ask people like, because I have a hard time convincing people to be proactive, right? Do the conditioning when their dog is healthy. Once someone's had an injury and rehabbed their dog, then they're very proactive, they're always doing their work, their dog's slightly off.

They come running into me, but I'm like, how do I get people to understand that if you do it ahead of time, you will prevent injury, which is really ideal. And I think the biggest key is to get people to understand that your dog is an athlete, it's a professional athlete, right? It's not a weekend warrior, it's an athlete.

And if you think of them like that, then it totally makes sense because all athletes need a warmup, they need a cool down, they need to be physically fit. And regardless of what sport you play, they need to have a strong core. And I think if they kind of just change their mindset a little bit, then it makes more sense.

And then people tend to be more on board to being proactive and it doesn't just prevent injury, it absolutely improves their performance as well. So that should be a motivator too.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. All right. Well thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Petra.

Petra Ford: Thank you for having me.

Melissa Breau: I always appreciate it, Especially on a travel day, cuz I know you're heading out soon.

Petra Ford: That's Ok.

Melissa Breau: Super excited for you.

Petra Ford: Thanks.

Melissa Breau: Thanks again. Thanks to all of our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Special thanks to Denise Fendi for supporting this podcast, music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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