(Original Post on March 4, 2015)
From time to time, I catch myself thinking, “Ohhh… they should be careful, and not over-train that dog… or else…!” Yet I don’t think I have ever said it out loud. If I did, I’m not sure anyone actually heard it. So, today I decided I should put this thought and friendly caution out there and explain the different forms and dangers of over-training.
I have seen, over the years, young super-stars burn out, become “poisoned” towards the sport of agility, and/or become unable to continue in the sport due to injury. In my opinion, there are three forms of over-training problems in agility, each with its own cause and consequence.
The first form of over-training is like over-training in any physical pursuit. Agility is a sport and it is demanding on dogs’ bodies. When we train a specific skill and focus on it over and over and over again, without sufficient rest, bad things can happen. I have seen dogs over the years pushed to the point of incurring repetitive stress injuries. This has even happened with my own dog, Kelsey. I had obsessed on training turns to the detriment of having an overall balanced training regimen. Just like our bodies require a REST day or two per week to recover and heal properly, so too do dogs need REST days. When I was training Kelsey for Regionals and Nationals, I ensured each week had two days allocated to simple rest for her. No agility, no strength training, nothing beyond a gentle walk or bathroom outings. (Plus it helped make sure I also had a rest day!)
Another form of over-training comes in a lack of balance between agility training and other physical training for the dogs. I have heard generalizations and recommendations that for every hour of agility training in a week, you should be doing at least 5 times that in other physical fitness training to create overall balance for your dog. Personally, I’ve never held a timer to all my dog’s training and physical activities; however if she is being sloth-like for the full week, it is unkind to then throw her hard-core into a full hour of agility training in class. I am not only risking her incurring an injury, but also I risk her developing a dislike of the sport due to discomfort associated with the demands. I don’t know about you, but I do know how I feel if I take a full week off and then do a full hour of hard-core fitness… I’m not a fan of it afterwards. I see this lack of joy in a lot of dogs when they are overweight and agility is their only fitness/activity, and I don’t blame them! It can hurt!
A third version of over-training is a sneaky one. This one was highlighted to me by Susan Garrett. You can have enough rest days and have balance in your overall training, but if you train a LONG time in a single session with your dog to the point where the dog is indicating fatigue, you are actually over-training in a way. You are training fatigue and slowing down into your sport. We aren’t mind readers. We don’t know exactly how the dog is feeling, but when they start to slow down or lose attention or shut down and we take that as the cue to stop, we are ending the training on the sour note. So, what I do with Kelsey is I typically don’t train for more than 2-3 minutes at a time. If I’m home, it is no longer than 3 minutes ever. The only way it is more than 3 minutes is if I take turns with another dog (a friend’s) or take a turn with me doing it with her resting. I might get one to two sessions in my training days (not my rest days), which makes it ~6 minutes of training (10 tops). I never end Kelsey on a fatigue note, and I have followed this rule for about 2 years now. She has only gotten faster and more engaged in the sport as a result.
So in closing, please look at this checklist to assess are you at risk of over-training your dog (with the consequences being either injury (minor or major), increased dislike of the sport and shutting down (refusing obstacles), or generally slowing down over time instead of increasing his/her passion for the sport:
1) How many days per week are you doing agility training? (Anything more than 5x/wk is asking for trouble.)
2) How many minutes per day are you training agility? (Anything more than 10-20 min/day is asking for trouble – this does NOT include warm-up and cool-down time with flatwork.)
3) Do you have a well-rounded activity regimen for your dog? This includes free running, walks, body awareness tricks, swimming, hills/stairs, play, for example.
4) Is your ratio (in terms of minutes) a 5:1 ratio or greater for non-agility : agility minutes?
5) Do you end your training sessions before any signs of fatigue? Do you find yourself saying, “Just one more time!” (That’s an indication you’ve tacked on one too many repetitions.)
6) Finally, if you go to the arena and want to make use of that time, but you are there alone, give your dog a rest and do HANDLER ONLY work and record notes of your training session! The time off gives your dog more fuel. They see you having fun and will want to join in. Plus you get to improve your mechanics before trying it with your dog. And you will have records of what you were doing in case anything goes wrong (or goes brilliantly).