Dog doing agility course

Meet one of the fastest-growing dog breeds: the canine athlete. In fact, the number of canines participating in sanctioned sports sponsored by the American Kennel Club has more than doubled in the past decade.

But whether your dog's workout consists of daily brisk walks or wowing packed arenas with his disc-catching prowess, your pup needs proper conditioning to stave off injury and deliver stellar performances.

"Fifteen years ago, we didn't have half the sports we now have for dogs and, unfortunately, we've also seen a threefold increase in sports-related injuries," says Dr. Joseph Wakshlag, MS, DVM, PhD, a member of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation (ACVSMR) and an assistant professor of clinical nutrition at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.

So what does it take to get your dog in peak athletic shape? Vetstreet interviewed specialists in the emerging field of canine sports medicine and rehabilitation and asked for their top five tips.

Step 1: Book a Wellness Exam

Before you expose your dog to any athletic activity, have your veterinarian perform a thorough physical examination, along with a complete blood work-up if your pet is over the age of 6.

"You want to make sure there is no organ dysfunction that may hinder athletic performance," Dr. Wakshlag says. "After all, the entire cardiovascular system will be driving these athletes."

Step 2: Watch Your Dog's Weight

Much like humans, canine athletes perform best at ideal body weights. A few extra pounds can add unwanted stress on a dog's joints and muscles, triggering injuries. So work with your veterinarian to pinpoint your pet's specific daily caloric needs.

"Dogs who do 45-second bursts on an agility course or who sprint in course luring need high-quality diets high in protein, but they do not need the extra calories found in performance diets meant for dogs who do endurance sports, like dog sledding or hunting," says Dr. Joseph Spoo, DVM, ACVSMR, a certified canine rehabilitation therapist and expert in canine athlete conditioning. "You need to be realistic as to how many calories your sport dog is actually burning, and be careful not to overfeed and cause weight gain. Even slightly overweight canine athletes are prone to injury."

Case in point: Calorie requirements for a dog who performs in a speed sport like course luring are far less than those needed for a hunting dog who tackles two-day field trials.

Step 3: Avoid Weekend Warrior Syndrome

Canine athletes not only need proper pre-event stretching, but they should also engage in regular exercise year-round. So if your dog lounges on the sofa during the week, and then spends his weekends performing in such demanding sports as agility and dock diving, he's more apt to succumb to injuries.

In the same way that you can't realistically tackle a marathon without months of proper training, your dog can't be expected to run an agility course full of sharp turns and jumps safely without gradual conditioning.

"Whether your dog joins you on your morning run or participates in weekend agility competitions, all dogs are canine athletes," says Dr. Shila Nordone, PhD, AKC Canine Health Foundation chief scientific officer. "They rely upon us to condition them and not push them too far."

Step 4: Pay Attention to the Temperature

Since dogs tread much closer to the ground, they're exposed to heat more than people. This is why it's crucial to look for early warning signs of heat exhaustion, including a slower pace, stopping and heavy panting.

"Pay attention to the heat, humidity and air flow from your dog's vantage point — not yours," Dr. Spoo says. "You might feel a cool breeze where you stand, but trees and heavy brush might block the breeze at ground level. I also tell people to look in their dog's eyes for early signs of heat exhaustion because a dog who is getting too hot will have a panicked look. Be in tune with your dog, and don't push him in hot weather."

Step 5: Vary the Workout Routine

Your dog may be an ace at agility, but his body will benefit from other types of exercise. Veterinary sports medicine specialists suggest training your dog to use a treadmill, teaching him to swim in safe waters, honing his fetching skills — and consulting a sports expert about proper physical therapy.

To learn more about canine athlete health, check out this series of podcasts that members of the sports medicine veterinary community recently produced as part of the AKC Canine Athlete Initiative campaign.