I watched as the K9 emerged from the trailer, instantly struck by the Texas heat. For those of us who lived there, it was a mild day compared to most. But to visitors, the 95 degree heat was unbearable.

Complying with her handler’s commands, the dog trotted onto the field. In a split second, she noticed the adversary 30 yards out, and her excitement overtook her. The handler commanded her into a down. The dog complied, quite literally chomping at the bit, and it took all of her resolve to focus her attention on the handler at her side, knowing this was the only way she’d be released for the attack.

As the dog made eye contact, the handler gave the word, sending the dog into a sprint down the grassy field where she slammed into the decoy, nearly lifting him off of his feet.

The decoy absorbed the hit, careful to keep the dog safe, and then proceeded to work the bite for what seemed like an eternity (15 or 20 seconds).

Satisfied with the dog’s performance, the handler recalled the dog, who instantly outed the bite and quickly returned, finishing at her side.

The dog panted hard. Her tongue was long and saliva was pouring from her mouth. She had peeled her lips up and away from her gums, and her breath was fast and heavy.

Understanding Heat Injury in the K9 Athlete

Read Next: Understanding Heat Injury in the K9 Athlete

Again, her handler sent her in for a bite. Like a bullet, the dog bolted down the field a second time, attacking her adversary with force, outing when called, and returning, hoping for another round.

After the second bite, the handler leashed the dog and returned her to the confines of the air conditioned trailer. The dog was quite obviously exhausted and the heat was overtaking her.

As the handler returned, the look of panic on her face was instantly apparent. After her short time on the field, the dog was suffering from heat exhaustion, a potentially life threatening condition that needed to be addressed immediately.

The onlookers, trainers, and kennel staff jumped into motion, wetting rags and wrapping the dog’s heat stricken body. They changed towels every few minutes as they absorbed the massive quantities of heat pouring off the dog, while strategically positioning fans to expedite the cooling process.

Monitoring the dog’s temperature and respiration, everyone watched tentatively for any response to the rigorous attempt at treatment. Finally, the dog began to calm, her temperature slowly declining from deadly levels, until it reached high normal.

We were out of the woods… But it was a close call.

Working dogs are the equivalent of the modern day athlete. Whether they are dogs used for hunting, tracking, search and rescue, detection, or protection work or sport, any dog with a job, like an athlete, must be properly conditioned.

The dog in the story above hadn’t been properly conditioned for heavy exercise and demanding work, and, having just arrived from Coastal California, where the temperature rarely fluctuates out of the 70’s, the dog succumbed to a possibly life threatening injury.

K9 Conditioning: Preventing Injury in K9 Athletes

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Preventing Work Related Injury in the K9 Athlete

  1. Condition to the elements – A dog that is inside of your air conditioned home, lounging on the couch, or worse yet, inside of a crate in the cool 72 degree controlled temperature, is going to have a very difficult time adapting to changes in ambient temperature and humidity. If your dog is going to be working, and you want to condition a K9 athlete, it’s critical your pup gets used to being outside and adjusting to weather patterns. Be sure to give your dog shelter from the elements and constant access to fresh water, and don’t be afraid to bring your pup in if the elements get too severe. If you are traveling, make sure your pup has time to acclimate to to any significant changes in the elements before asking for demanding work regimes and pay close attention for any signs of distress.
  2. Build endurance – One of the biggest mistakes K9 handlers make is keeping their K9 confined and then pulling the dog out only for work. I’ve seen countless owners and handlers keep their dogs confined to crates or small runs, taking the dog out for a 15 or 20 minute work session, after which they return the dog to confinement. In fact, one of my original mentors encouraged me to pursue this training route as it would lead to a more “amped” pup with more motivation to work. In all actuality, short bursts of exercise would be the equivalent of me sitting on the couch 23 hours a day and then trying to take an advanced level CrossFit class with no stretching first. I’d likely injure myself in places I didn’t even know I had. Instead, steady consistent exercise will build muscle and endurance in your K9 partner. Opting for large runs, as opposed to crates for daily confinement will help dogs maintain appropriate muscle mass. Consistent daily exercise will help build endurance and strength and will help prevent any work or training related injuries in the future. Building endurance through daily training and exercise is far healthier than periodic bursts of hard work for an otherwise sedentary pup.
  3. A warm up does wonders – Whether you are headed to training, or out for a day of solid work, just like their human counterparts, warming up and stretching the muscles can do wonders for our K9 partners. Simply taking your pup for a good five minute walk, allowing them to relieve themselves, and stretch their legs, especially if they are confined to a crate for transport, will help tremendously in preventing injury. A quick game of tug post walk for protection/sport dogs, or a few retrieve rehearsals for hunting dogs can help further the warm up, and allow the dog to blow out any frustration built up from being confined. Don’t tire your dog in your warm up – simply get their muscles moving and their minds ready for work.
  4. Don’t get stuck in a rut – Physically cross training your K9 can do wonders for building muscle tone and endurance, as well as for preventing work related injuries. As a supplement to your training regime, taking your dog for a run, hiking with your pup, taking your dog swimming (or teaching him how), jogging on the beach, teaching your dog to use conditioning tools such as a treadmill, or, at times, simply throwing the ball will engage and build different muscles that may be called upon during rigorous training or work. Many K9 trainers and handlers get stuck in a rut, simply practicing the same routine, or series of exercises focused around their dog’s specific job. But what human athlete conditions and trains by simply exercising a handful of muscles? Who goes to the gym and only works their arms, day in and day out? To achieve peak levels of performance, and to prevent working injury, exercising all of the body’s muscles is key.
  5. Don’t forget the cool down – After a vigorous exercise session, professional trainers advise human athletes to spend a significant amount of time “cooling down”. This allows the heart rate to slowly decrease to resting state, and many argue it reduces muscle cramps and soreness, reduces stress on vital organs, and even reduces the occurrence of exercise related injury. Our K9s are no different. Performance experts advocate that working K9s go through 5-10 minutes of cool down after strenuous training or work before being confined for transport or before being allowed to rest. To cool your K9 down, simply slowly and calmly walk your freshly worked pup for 5-10 minutes to keep the muscles moving, but to allow the heart rate to slowly return to its resting state. If your dog is heated, dousing them with room temperature water before walking will help them release excess heat and will expedite the cooling process. The jury is still out as to whether cold water or use of ice/ice packs is safe to expedite the cooling process. Critics warning against the potential for shock to the system, so we advocate using room temperature water to aid in cooling until more research becomes available.

K9 Conditioning: Preventing Injury in K9 Athletes

As a Working Dog Trainer, I expect my dogs to perform regardless of the elements, and regardless of a change in environment. However, its up to me to equip them with the tools and training necessary for them to perform their job in a safe and effective manner, regardless of where we are or what we are doing. Whether we are taking a stroll in sunny San Diego, or we are knee deep in snow, fighting freezing temperatures with heavy wind, or we are on the training field on a 100 degree Texas Summer Day, it is my job to physically prepare my K9 for the work that lies ahead.

While conditioning and acclimation are no replacement for proper education, familiarizing yourself with the signs and symptoms of distress, and knowing what to do in response, by preparing yourself and your K9, you can absolutely help build tolerance and prevent injury.

On that hot summer day in Texas, the good intentioned handler made a number of mistakes that could have proven deadly. With no warm up, no time for the K9 to acclimate to the heat, and with a pup that rarely left the confines of her cushy air conditioned kennel except for short bursts of vigorous work, the handler unknowingly set her dog up for injury.

There is no doubt that this particular handler loved her K9, and only wanted what was best for her. Thankfully, she, as well as our staff, knew the signs of heat exhaustion and heat related injury, as well as techniques for treating, and were able to save the dog from potential tragedy. We were prepared. However, the event could have been prevented, thus rendering our preparations unnecessary…an ideal situation and a stark learning experience for this relatively green handler.

By taking a few key precautions, and knowing the signs and emergency treatment of work related injuries such as heat exhaustion, we can be prepared for and, more often than not, prevent potential disasters from occurring in our K9 partners.