Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Matter of Energy

I can't count the number of times when someone has said to me, "my next dog is going to be a little dog." I think when they've seen how tight some courses can be, and how difficult this can be for some large dogs, they think the answer, automatically, must be to get a smaller dog.

We'll leave the training part of this issue aside for now, but the fact is that running a small dog, particularly a toy dog, is not especially "easier". Otherwise, you would see a much greater percentage of small dogs, vs. large dogs qualifying. In general, I don't think you do.

Particularly, once you get down to 4" jump height the Q rate falls pretty dramatically. On top of that, many 4" competitors cannot even run in Standard due especially to the height of the A frame, and also to the particular difficulty of getting a dog to ride the drop of the teeter.

It takes an especially brave little dog to do that, and an even braver one, combined with a judicious touch in training, to get them to ride it consistently through the course of a long career.

There is another issue though that complicates the ability to trial and Q with a tiny toy dog at an agility trial. And that is energy.

A toy dog has a tiny liver that can only process a limited amount of energy at any one time. At the extremes, toy dogs, and especially toy breed puppies, can actually deplete available energy when playing hard, or when they haven't been fed frequently enough.

They can go into hypoglycemia, and if not given a nutrition paste quickly, they can die.

Not many toy dogs actually die of hypoglycemia on the agility field, but they do often run out of energy.

This can happen for many reasons:

-- Too long of a warm up.
-- Not enough care in managing how energy is supplied on trial day
-- Skipping meals in order to "motivate" the dog
-- Dog will not eat at trials due to stress
-- Insufficient rest

I have actually had Taylor "bonk out" on me a couple of times when his class has been delayed after his normal lunch time and I've haven't kept track of time.

Both of these times, he was hyper, anxious and visibly confused on course, terms that do not usually describe his performance.

Because of this, I've made a commitment to keeping his meals on schedule at trials, no matter what else is happening, or how soon after his meal it appears he will need to go into the ring.

If going into the ring appears imminent, I will give him a smaller snack, but not skip it.

Keep in mind when I talk about "meals" here, I am speaking of toy dog portions, measured roughly in teaspoons.

Which reminds me of another related point: Many toy breed dogs should be fed three times a day. My breeder even made this a contingency to taking Taylor, due to his very small size. Once again this is due to the risk of hypoglycemia if meals are taken too far apart.

Besides the health issues of energy management in toy breeds, there is an impact on how successfully and energetically a dog can run, depending on how well its energy needs are met.

Oftentimes, we hear of toy breed dogs who run well in the morning, only to be pokey and lethargic in their later classes.

Or, they seem to "run out of gas" on the course or maybe even have trouble getting started.

In the dogs we run against in 4" jump height, we see these problems a lot.

To complicate the issue, many handlers interpret this lethargy as a motivational issue rather than one with metabolism at the core.

That is why, in managing my own dogs, I do the following:

- Make sure small amounts of high energy foods are fed, particularly in the hours leading up to the run. Observation on what works for the particular dog is key. Make sure you feed something that is easily digestible, and able to be given in very small portions.

- Consider using energy drinks. I've found these are particularly helpful in restoring energy for successive runs, especially on hot days. These can be given quite close to going in the ring and can often revive a little dog that seems tired or "out of it".

- Make sure fresh water is always available and that the dog stays hydrated.

- Get your dog used to resting in trial conditions and do your best to provide a quiet, comfortable place for the dog to rest. We've found that a crate that is well covered with the dog's own comfy bed inside works best.

Although big dog people will tell you that dogs rest better in their crates, it's also true that toy dogs were bred to be lap dogs and many are quite comfortable sleeping on laps. Once again, observe and do what works best for your own dog, even if it means breaking with conventions.

- Make good decisions. Toy dogs are not big working dogs, and they often are unable to put in the kind of long days and extended training sessions that might simply take the edge off a big, energetic dog. Know your limitations, and always commit to a less than the limit of what your dog can comfortably do.

When your dog trusts that you will not overwork him, he will be more likely to commit his full energy into an effort when needed. He will be less likely to "hang back" dreading being pushed to hard. And he will be less likely to train himself to conserve energy trying to preserve himself for a long haul.

- Make travel plans to provide for lots of quality rest whenever possible. This can extend to planning when to arrive, what you do in your off hours and what kind of hotel you choose. We tend to stay with our dogs to rest at the hotel after show hours. Also, you might find your dog rests better when you pick a hotel that is not the main show hotel.

Many hotels accept only dogs 20 pounds and under, and oftentimes, these hotels will be less hectic and noisy, with less barking and disruptions from dogs being taken in and out of the hotel at night.

I say this not because toy dogs are necessarily quieter (often quite the contrary), but simply because there will be fewer total dogs than at the primary show hotel.

These suggestions are what I have found works best for me. Working at maintaining energy is a good part of what has helped Taylor perform consistently and dependably over the years. I know energy will continue to remain a priority as long as I trial and train with toy breed dogs.

No comments: