Over the years, I’ve written a couple of Training Thoughts about the importance of not over-training, team development & handling, and pain & proprioception, but one topic I haven’t written explicitly about is the dog’s weight. With some recent discussion on servers and what I have also witnessed in classes, it’s time I hop onto this particular soapbox. So, please come along for the discussion as this may be one of the most important things I could possibly say about becoming an agility team.
Back in 1993, my first agility partner, Brooke was born. She was my second dog and she was such an important teacher for me. She was a Labrador/German shepherd/Doberman cross (maybe something else in there too). She grew into a large dog (measuring 24″ at her shoulders/withers). She was leggy, and really cute! By the time she was 18 months of age, she weighed 60 pounds. We were into agility by this point, and by the time she was competing, she weighed 62 pounds. I know these numbers because I loved her and took very good care of her. My vet never told me she was overweight (he had done so with our first family dog, Nicky, a Pembroke Welsh Corgi see below), so I figured she was fine.
Then a fellow competitor at a trial (who was also a judge, Case Laan (from BC, Canada) – thanks Case!!!) informed me that my girl was overweight. “WHAT?!?!” I thought, “That’s not possible! My vet hasn’t said anything. We are active, we walk every day for hours!”
“Oh yeah, you can tell. She’s a very cute dog with a small head. When the head looks small, it’s because they are carrying too much weight on their torso,” he said.
Brooke from agility-overweight (left) to agility-fit (bottom-right)
So then I talked to my vet about ideal weight. I learned the “Feel” trick. It is really simple and it is full-proof for the sleek and the super fuzzy dogs. As an instructor, I have been able to identify overweight dogs despite the thickest of coats. I can also identify underweight dogs despite the thickest of coats. As an instructor, I try to get my hands on the dogs in my classes so I can gauge if we are going to have more risks and training challenges. I also use it as a gauge on what I permit my students to do in my classes. (I do not permit any seriously overweight dogs jump full or even close to full heights. If the handler wants to insist on it, they can do that on their own time, not in my classes.)
So What Is the Feel Trick?
Look and feel your hand and compare it to your dog’s ribs and hips (both are important as some dogs carry their fat in the ribs, while others in their hips). There are basically three iterations: underweight, ideal weight, and overweight. The feeling for the ribs/hips are comparable to your knuckles.
The Under-Weight Look/Feel
If you make a fist, you can easily see your knuckles. You feel large “bumps” of bone when you rub your fingers over them gently. That is like an underweight dog’s ribs/hips. I have had two agility dogs who can veer towards the underweight (Kelsey in 2014, and Jenga from young adulthood to now). For these dogs, you want to talk to your vet to rule out any underlying health issues, and a knowledgeable nutritionist on how to support them. (For Jenga it was to add more fat content and feed him larger servings.)
The Over-Weight Look/Feel
Flip your hand over and feel the knuckles from your palm side. You will likely need to exert a little bit of pressure to feel the bones. On your dog, if you have to exert force to feel the ribs/hips, then your dog is over-weight from a sports perspective. The more you lose your digits in the flesh to feel the bone, the more over-weight your dog is. I consider a dog seriously overweight for the sport of agility if I lose half my finger tip (halfway between the end of my finger and my first knuckle) on a large dog. For the smaller dogs, it may be even less than that for them.
Please note, that I’m talking about dogs who are asked to engaged in sport. An okay “pet weight” may feel like the palm without much pressure. My retired agility girl, Kelsey, now feels like this and is deemed by her vet in phenomenal condition. But I wouldn’t ask her to jump full height jumps in her current condition. She’s not fit enough and it is an extra few pounds that she has to hoist from her rear end, and that will land on her shoulders.
The Ideal Weight Look/Feel
Finally, if you look at the back of your hand with it flat (fingers extended and lying flat), then the look and the feel of your knuckles is the ideal athlete feel. This is as far as weight via fat content is concerned. This does not include the muscle requirements for the sport, which is a whole other blog, best written by a canine physiotherapist. (Very briefly, I look to build rear strength, core and back strength, and shoulder strength, along with body awareness.)
Based on this approach, I have been able to successfully identify the approximate extra fat weight on hundreds of dogs over the years. The body shape visual in vets’ offices is helpful (e.g., the look of a waistline), but for the fluffy dogs it is harder to assess by eye only.
So Why Does It Matter?
Well, remember how I said that Brooke got up to 62 lb? Well, when I got her fat composition down to her ideal feel, she ended up carrying 7 fewer pounds. At 55 pounds, she was lean, fit, and very happy in the sport. She continued competing until she was 10, and even as I retired her (I knew she had arthritis in the rib cage), other competitors questioned why she was “Specials” or “retiring” as she still looked fit and fantastic.
That original extra 7 pounds was 11.3% of her body weight was non-productive load. If I were to ask you to fill a backpack of 10% of your body weight (e.g. 15 pounds for a 150 pound person) and run an agility course, how would you do? If I asked you to do that every time you did agility, how would you feel about me as your instructor and the sport itself? If I asked you to do that and jump jumps and scale walls, how would you fare, physically, mentally, and how much would you enjoy our time together in agility?
I, myself, have carried ranges of 6% to 24% non-productive loads (my current physical state is 6% “excess”, pregnancy and postpartum was up to 24%). I can tell you that the sport (as a handler) was much harder when I was carrying my 10-24% extra pounds. I would be out of breath faster (top left photo below), I was slower, I would fall easier (proprioception was harder for me as I didn’t know where my center of balance was with the weight changes postpartum) and I experienced a lot more injuries (check out the taped ankles from wicked shin splints). I could still do agility, but it was a very different experience for me, physically. Fortunately, I was already addicted to the sport and knew the intrinsic joy to put up with these challenges.
This is what I see when dogs carry the extra fat weight. They get winded more easily, end up hating jumps, refusing A-Frames, are more prone to strain injuries, and are slow on course. In addition, there is some research that highlights additional health benefits for reducing body fat weight!
When the same dog loses fat weight through the care of their handlers, I see joy enter their eyes. They are able to perform over the equipment and complete courses better, and they become faster on course.
It is so very important that handlers look out for their canine partner’s well-being and safety!
If you suspect your dog is overweight for the demands of agility, please, I beg you, open the discussion with your instructor and veterinarian. Tell your vet that you are doing agility with your dog and that you want your dog as fit as possible for the sport. I am willing to guarantee you that your vet would be more than delighted to have that conversation with you and be more proactive with your dog’s health and weight management.
For me, I have only seen the benefits, time and time again, when teams have actively pursued a more healthy lifestyle and fitness. The dogs’ happiness is abundantly clear on course! 🙂
Happy training and get feeling those dogs’ ribs and hips with purpose! 🙂