E343: Ashley Escobar - Conditioning for Sports Dogs

Ever wondered why canine conditioning matters, or why it's become so popular? In this episode Ashley and I dive into its importance for sport dogs of all types.  


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 Ashley Escobar here with me to talk about canine conditioning for sports dogs. Hi Ashley, welcome to the podcast!

Ashley Escobar: Hi Melissa. Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. To start us out, you wanna just kind of share a little bit about you and your canine crew?

Ashley Escobar: Yes, I am Ashley and I share my home with five dogs, three Australian shepherds and two Border collies. Three of them belong to my children. They also compete in dog sports and my two Border colleagues are my agility prospects right now.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Super exciting. So I wanted to chat a little bit about conditioning today, kinda specifically as it relates to our sports dogs. So let's maybe start with the basics. Why is conditioning so important for our sports dogs?

Ashley Escobar: It is in particular super important for our sport dogs because we ask them to do very specific tasks that are often not their natural movements or natural things that they would do if we just turn them loose into the backyard.

So the easiest comparison that I found over the years to help people kind of understand the importance here is to visualize football players. They practice a lot of drills and skills and playbooks for maneuvers they might see in a football game, but just as much practice as they do there. They also do specific training off the field to work their stabilizer muscles and to work specific muscle groups to help them execute those moves that they do on the field to be perform at their maximum potential and to also help with injury prevention because a lot of these sports that we're doing, especially now as all sports seem to be growing leaps and bounds, there's so many more injuries that go along with that.

So in particular the training that we do for our dogs, we're spending vast amount of dollars and energy and efforts to get these really specific skills fluid with our dogs. Whether it be disc dog scent work, conformation, whatever sport you do, we practice those maneuvers for that particular sport. But I ask people are we putting as much effort into physically preparing our dog for those because just practicing the skill, just practicing weave poles alone for agility, it's not really enough. We need to be practicing and conditioning our dog physically for that sport or for that particular skill so that they can uphold long-term injury prevention, have the right muscle groups toned and conditioned for that exercise.

So I think it's twofold. If we're gonna put hundreds of hours into learning precision heeling or weave poles or running contacts or having these hard fines for SAR dogs or even scent work dogs, we also have to put in an ample amount of time to condition them to be completely fair to our dogs because none of those are natural movements that our dogs would do if we just turned them loose in a field.

Melissa Breau: So to dive into that just a little bit more, how much time are you talking about kind of dedicating to this stuff? I know your dogs compete in all sorts of things. You do all sorts of things with them. Like how do you balance the time that you spend on conditioning with the kind of sports specific training and or other training you might be working on? You know, still have time left in the day.

Ashley Escobar: Having someone help you identify a specific conditioning plan for your dog is really where it's at. If you don't have just all day to do nothing but play with your dog because then you can maximize your time. So if we have, if each one of my dogs has a specific conditioning plan, my 8-year-old can follow the conditioning plan for her dog. My 11-year-old can follow the conditioning plan for his dog. So everyone has their own plan and the plans are three to five times a week. We do specific conditioning exercises for my personal agility dog. If we're going to be working on some international courses and I'm gonna take her to a UKI event, she might do five, six days a week of conditioning training because I really wanna make sure that she's in her top physical condition to handle that. But in general, we need three to five days a week where we can do 10 to 15 minutes a day and it does not have to be 10 to 15 minutes of consecutive work.

This is where a lot of people, I lose a lot of people because they're like, "Nope, I don't have an extra 10 or 15 minutes to add on to my one hour class that I already do." But the nice thing about conditioning is it's not cardio. So we don't need a consistent 10 to 15 minutes of we're just doing gym time, we're just doing treadmill work. It's not that it's 10 to 15 minutes with a prebuilt plan.

So you know how many sets, how many reps, what muscle group we're gonna be targeting on this day that we're working on. And we can do three or four minutes in the morning before they eat. We can do three or four minutes in a warmup that we build for our dogs. We can do a cool down where we're engaging and working those stabilize our muscles or whatever it is specifically for that dog.

So the biggest, I guess, time saver and to be the most effective and optimize your time spent with this because we likely already have so much time that we're dedicating for skills training is to have a very specific personalized custom conditioning plan.

Melissa Breau: What maybe are some signs that a dog's sport performance would really improve or that a dog might really need some conditioning, like kind of a conditioning plan put in place? Are there, you know, common imbalances for different sports that maybe we should be thinking about that or symptoms that maybe indicate that a dog's body just isn't performing as well as it could be?

Ashley Escobar: Yes. The most common, so injuries are gonna be number one. So when, when someone's dog gets injured, that's a huge sign that there was not enough emphasis put on their conditioning for that particular exercise.

Half of the time. The other half of the time. I mean, injuries happen, things happen. So that's one time that you are like, well I probably need to do a little bit more with my dog. The other side is for, I'm just gonna go through a few sports. So with agility, a big complaint that I get is, my dog is really fast. We're like 10th of a second for coming in first, but when my dog makes turns, they're really wide and then my dog is not able to regain speed where they were. It takes them multiple strides to get back. So that is a sign that the dog is weak in their rear and in their core because if they can't make that really tight turn and then power into full on speed that they had before the turn, they're weak. So we can strengthen that. That's, that's something that we can fix for disc dogs. They're running as fast as they can as on the flat and when they catch the Frisbee and they land and the momentum stops again, it's taking them more time than the handler feels they should to power back into that speed and regain their speed back to the handler. To retrieve or yes to deliver the Frisbee.

Conformation dogs, this is a big one. 'cause a lot of times conformation people are like, I don't need conditioning. My dog's just gonna stand there. There's no, there's no skills. But let's say you're at a big show and your dog goes into the breed ring and they win their breed class and then they win and they go in for group and they're in this 10 minute long ring where you're expecting your dog to stand in a balanced stand and you know, think about us like we shoulders back abs in feet directly underneath our shoulders. Like that's hard to do if you're not conditioned to stand like that. So those would be, and like you, the dog start slouching, they start standing wide, they start wanting to sit, they'd start drooping their head or their shoulders kind of start slouching. They need some conditioning for that.

Another big one was last summer I started nosework with one of my Aussies and so I met tons of new people in different sports and multiple searches that sometimes the dog is climbing over stuff and they're going under things and they're really having to work for this odor to alert. And some of the dogs, they just, they would miss odor because they had maybe been lifting up on their rear and trying to, you know, sometimes it's two feet off the ground. I don't know if you've done a lot of nosework. I have not. So I'm super novice to it. But some of the dogs would start getting fatigued with just the motions because again, this is not, we're not asking them just to walk on a leash and walk forwards. Like we're asking them to back up and we're asking them to contort their body and bend and crawl underneath things.

And you can see where they would just, it, they were not putting forth the same amount of enthusiastic effort to find it when the physical limitations started to show through. So that was another big area where people were like, no, my dogs don't need fitness. We just do nosework. Like it's, they just use their nose but they don't, they need, you know, they're moving their bodies. They're, you know, having to use their brain and their nose and their bodies to find these odors and they can easily become physically fatigued. And so that is another area where you would see like, oh yeah, my dog did miss this hide that was maybe required some crawling and bending or climbing over things.

So could it be that they were just a little bit fatigued and they thought, you know what, I'm gonna go find an easier one. 'cause that's just, I can't do that. And I really do think that that happens. I mean I've seen it and I've seen where clients have improved with their dogs not missing hides and we're not working out their noses. So it's totally physical. So those would just be a few of the things that you might be seeing in your own performances where you're like, my dog needs something extra.

Melissa Breau: Can you talk a little bit about kind of what we're looking at when we're trying to evaluate our dog's current conditioning and you know, I know you kinda mentioned rear and core in there. Can you talk a little bit about how maybe we group some of those exercises and we're starting to talk about putting together a plan or a thought?

Ashley Escobar: Yes. So for this class and for clients that are first time clients of mine, I have them split their dog in thirds. So we have the front end, we have the middle core section, and we have the rear.

And we're going to make this really simple because I am a retired math professor, so I can really like break this down and really just overload people with the analytical side of this. But I want it to be digestible for anyone, whether you've had fitness before or not, like you can get this information and be able to put it to good use.

So we're gonna break our dog into thirds. We're gonna look at the front end and certain exercises where we can specifically target the front of the dog. And for this class specifically, this is gonna be from the shoulders forward, just to keep it simple, anything that our dog is using those muscles, which would be a lot of things, then we can target those muscles specifically.

And there's ways that we can tell if the dog is just naturally weaker in their front versus if they're weaker in their rear and their core. And then the middle section, we're gonna have exercises and look at ways that we might see some things that indicate that our dog is weak in the rear. Even some structural things with our dog where we say, okay, this dog is just naturally going to be weaker in the rear.

They have a slightly longer body than they do leg height. They're just naturally weaker in their rear. It's not a big deal, it's not a bad thing, but we know that so we can target and customize our fitness plan for that dog to really maximize and target their core to build that up to get it nice and strong. And then the same thing with the rear. So hips back, that's gonna be our rear for this class and we're going to work on exercises where we can just specifically target the rear.

Melissa Breau: Okay. So I know you kind of talked about the rear of the core and the front and there, but you're also talking about some other stuff in the class. So I think when most people maybe think about conditioning, they usually think about strength and they might consider flexibility. But reading over this syllabus, you also kind of mentioned balance and cardio and a mental component. So can you maybe elaborate on those pieces? What are we talking about there and kind of how do they factor into conditioning?

Ashley Escobar: So all of the conditioning exercises that we do also incorporate some mental stimulation for our dogs because we're likely gonna be teaching them new behaviors and skills that they have not done before.

So we're mentally going to be giving them some stimulation and challenge. So that's gonna be kind of a built-in bonus to all of the exercises. The balance component really comes from and the flexibility, it's all gonna come from the strength training exercises that are within this program. So all of the exercises that we do are going to be what's considered a balanced exercise.

It's going to cover flexibility, it's going to cover strength, it's going to cover balance. The cardiovascular is going to be something that's, we just plug in there to give people the option to have, maybe they have a small space or they're snowed in and they need to be able to get some cardio on their dog and they don't have a treadmill. Then we have some exercises that I'm gonna put in the exercise bank where they can get some cardio in a smaller space.

But the majority of these exercises are not going to be cardiovascular targeted. They were gonna be targeting the front, the core or the rear. Most of the cardio exercise that your dog is getting is coming from their skills training that they're doing for their specific performance sport.

Melissa Breau: That makes a lot of sense. Can you talk a little bit about maybe, you know, I think you mentioned in their rehab and like earlier on in the conversation and can you talk a little bit how conditioning for rehab or even just kind of, you know, an aging dog, the maintenance that dog might need differs from the conditioning we wanna do and look at for our active sports dogs?

Ashley Escobar: Yes. So the aging dog or the dog that is just a companion pet, they have more of what I consider routine maintenance. Like there's certain things that we want to do to keep them strong and healthy and keep their mobility at the utmost level that we can get for them, especially for our senior dogs. It's different for our sport dogs because we are really loading and demanding certain muscle groups on our sport dogs that our companion dogs just don't get asked to do.

And it's not the big muscle groups. Like those are usually not our problematic muscles. It's usually the little stabilizer muscles, the shoulder stabilizer muscles or the iliopsoas. I mean these are really small muscles that again, they just don't, they don't work themselves and we cannot tighten and strengthen and balance our dogs unless we do specific exercises to target those little tiny muscles that make all of the time differences and physical appearance differences in our sport dogs and precision heeling is one of them.

We spend so much time with the dog heeling on our left hand side, right? The dog's head is up, they have this beautiful forward motion with their front feet, ideally their rear feet are driving underneath them. It's this beautiful dance. Those dogs innately become weaker on one side versus the other because they spend so much time on our left side and rightfully so.

That particular skill requires a lot of practice. So they need a specific set of exercises that are going to target their left side because their load side is their right side. So it's getting worked way more than the other. So we wanna balance them out. So a lot of these exercises too, depending on the sport that you do, it might just be a balancing act because your dog just might be stronger on their right side than their left side.

Melissa Breau: I can see how that would be really important to think about, especially with something like obedience and heel work. I know you mentioned pulls for agility and there's just a lot of pieces in there, right, where we build our dogs in ways that are not balanced.

Ashley Escobar: Not at all. And you, you don't think about it until you dog gets injured or your a 10th of a second from first place and getting all the points right. Then you're like, okay, what can I do to make this dog faster? Or what can I do to make my lines cleaner or tighter? And it all comes down to those little tiny stabilizer muscles.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Okay. So let's get into the class a little more. So I know in February you've got your class on constructing a winning conditioning plan for sports dogs. And while I think the title says a lot, can you share a little more about the class, kinda what you'll cover and maybe who wants to join you?

Ashley Escobar: Yes. So the class is going to be a lot of why we pick certain exercises and how to identify what exercise your specific dog needs. Because what my agility dog needs might not be what your agility dog needs.

Your dog might be weaker in a different area than mine. So we're gonna take a look at our dogs specifically and I'm gonna walk you through how to identify where your dog is just naturally a little bit weak. And then I'm gonna have you tell me where you think your dog is weak because you would know that your dog is weak here. So the natural state of our dog, we want to see where they're weak and then we wanna see where they're weak in relation to the sports career that they have. And I know that a lot of clients of mine have multiple sports. So it's definitely, I'm going to want you to pick one sport that you really want to focus on because those exercises will be different if you pick a different one for it.

So we're gonna take a look at the dog, we're gonna find out where we have some weak links and then we're going to build a plan for that dog. I'm gonna walk you through how to build it from the first exercise and the warmup all the way to the cool down. And there will be several exercises given. And as the working spots submits their feedback, then we can customize and chisel away, okay, this exercise is not really best for your performance dog. This would be more of a maintenance exercise for you. But we're gonna add in this exercise here. So there's gonna be lots of exercises given for the folks that are just at a bronze level, let's say that they can kind of follow along with the gold students and kind of, I tell them, pick a dog that has your same sport and or has the same weaknesses as your dog and then kind of mimic it from there for your exercise plan. But that's, there's a lot of why we do the exercises that we do and why we want the particular forms that we want with the exercise. And then the how to part is going to be less.

But I think it's really important for people to understand the reasoning behind the chosen exercises instead of me just saying, your dog needs rear end work and here's some exercises. Like I want 'em to really understand why they need rear exercises and there's so many different variations of it. So there'll be lectures, there'll be videos to kind of demonstrate particular setups and form that we're looking for and then also some demonstration videos.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Anything else that folks should know maybe about the class or coming into the class or, or any of that?

Ashley Escobar: I've set this up so that you do not have to have any prior conditioning or fitness training. You will need a few pieces of equipment, but most of this stuff you probably have laying around your house,

I'm huge on kind of DIY equipment because it's so expensive to buy the name brand pretty equipment and really it doesn't matter, I just like for it to be functional. So I do try to give a lot of options on untraditional equipment uses so that we can make it reasonable for everyone to be able to do the exercises. I don't want someone to not be able to do something because they cannot afford a fit bone or something like that.

So everything's gonna be kind of tailored to this option. If you don't have that, if you do have some fitness knowledge and the understanding of why we pick certain exercises, then the exercise proponent and the customization of the plan is still going to be useful. But I really wanted to set this up to just sort of target those folks who've always wanted to kind of dive into conditioning but just did not have the background or the knowledge on how to or have access to someone local that could help them.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. Any final thoughts or key points you wanna leave listeners with?

Ashley Escobar: I do want to mention that even the fitness and conditioning training, though it is sports specific. So we do it to improve upon the sports that we spend hours and hours training for. It does come in handy should the unimaginable happen. Okay. I'll give you an example. My just turned 2-year-old master Border Collie in agility punctured her cornea three weeks ago.

Melissa Breau: Wow.

Ashley Escobar: She cannot do anything off leash or unsupervised in the yard. She just turned two. She's working lines sheep dog. Right? She wants to do something. Yeah, I would probably have to have her sedated 24/7 if we did not have all of these conditioning and fitness skills where I can still give her an outlet of some physical and mental stimulation.

And it's also really useful because when she is clear to return to work, I will not have to spend the first four to six weeks getting her back in shape. So I'm able to keep her physical status where it should be with just these conditioning and fitness exercises that we've been doing all along. So it's helpful in a lot of areas, even with if you do have an injury of some sort or a spay or a neuter or some reason that you have to take some time off, a bandage gets ripped off like that is the number one, my dog cannot do anything physical right now. They're on not crate rest and they're not, there's nothing really wrong with them, but they cannot let them run around or we can't sport train, but we can still do conditioning and fitness. So we can keep up their muscular structure and keep their balance and keep them in that condition so that when we're able to return we pick up where we left off more or less.

Melissa Breau: On that note, I know this wasn't on the pre-written list I gave you, but is there anybody who maybe isn't a fit for the class from that perspective or anybody who, you know, any limitations that a dog may currently be be under that would make them not appropriate for the class?

Ashley Escobar: If your dog is currently not cleared for exercise, if you just underwent surgery or if your dog is recovering from a broken leg or any type of physical limitation where they are under the care of an orthopedic vet or your current vet, they would not, if they're not cleared for exercise, then they're not cleared for exercise. So they, anyone who's coming back from an injury or a surgery would definitely need to be cleared for exercise before they would be able to participate.

Melissa Breau: Good to know, and good to kind of clarify that right before we call things. Absolutely. Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Ashley. This has been fantastic.

Ashley Escobar: Yeah, Thanks for having me.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. And 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 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.


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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