The two dogs and I have just returned from a weekend seminar with Chris Zink, DVM, PhD in Edmonton.  Lots and lots of good learning, great new ideas for teaching others as well as working on with my own dogs! I have pages and pages of notes, too much to try to write out here. But I`ll try to highlight some of the things that she talked about during the seminar.

First off, she started with a basic overview of structure. That alone of course is a massive topic, but one of the take away messages in this section was that different body types and sizes of dog (breeds) were developed for certain jobs over time, and if we want our Canine Athletes and performance dogs to maximize their potential and minimize injury – it helps for you to be familiar with the demands of the sport you plan on being involved in, so that your choice of dog perhaps matches the demands of your chosen performance event. Some dogs and body types will have advantages over other body types, the better you think through what your do`s job is going to be and what demands that job will place on body and structure and function, the better you can match the right type of dog for your hopes and desires.

Regardless of type and breed of dog – bottom line for dogs who will be asked to jump (such as our agility dogs) is that the front assembly is hugely important. Chris stated she would take a dog with a crappy rear any day over a dog with a poor front. The front bears about 65% of a dog`s weight and when you consider that in agility – at each landing – that weight will come down and land on the front alone with impact, it of course becomes obvious how a poor front will deteriorate quickly and /or increase risk for injury. We took dogs out for some hands-on comparisons and to learn about looking for shoulder lay back and angulation.
While I enjoyed this part of the workshop, I wish there had been fewer dogs and more time with Chris actually evaluating live dogs and helping us see things. As it was, there were so many dogs, divided into several groups of dogs – and a lot of the time was very interesting but discussed in a group, where we had no “expert” (other than intermittently checking in) to help answer the many questions the arose in comparing our dogs. A lot more could have been learned, I think – had there not been so unbelievably many dogs.

Fitness, as well as keeping any excess weight off the dog, was of course stressed again and again in different contexts and throughout the weekend. A fit athlete is going to have a lot easier time within his or her sport but also shorter and easier time recovering from injury, IF something happens. 

Considerable time was spent talking about Spay and Neuter. I think most people in the room were probably familiar with Chris`article on Spay and Neuter considerations for the Canine Athlete. I know reference to this article always comes up in dog circles and I have certainly based some of my own spay/neuter decisions on it. In past she has recommended that PERFORMANCE DOG spay/neuter should wait and be done after 14 months, not at 6 months which is commonly out there as the “norm” with companion dogs. But what she added to the discussion this weekend is that there is some brand new evidence (a new paper that came out this month!) making her re-consider this whole discussion. One of the big factors in past indicating there is good advantage to spaying females has been the perceived link to mammary cancer. What the latest research is now showing is that there is no benefit of spaying for mammary cancer! In fact, she showed a lot of research and numbers pointing toward risk of cancers in general going up with spayed/neutered dogs. There were some other interesting links shown between cancers and spay/neuter, as well as fear and aggression and spay/neuter. Again – considerations for performance dogs – she’s talking to a group of dedicated, keen dog enthusiasts and trainers – not so to the general public who own dogs. There’s still that whole pet overpopulation thing – so I do want to stress that she is talking to a very specific trainer group with performance dogs. Lots of food for thought in this section – and she admitted she is currently so unsure what her recommendation for bitches should be – that she chose her newest puppy based on this: it’s a MALE “because she knows what to do with him” (won’t neuter). (Adding – if anything, we should consider vasectomies (not castration!) for our male dogs, and possibly taking out the uterus and leaving the ovaries in for females (but more research needs to be done in this area) Interesting, isn’t it!? This topic was complex enough as it was…now we have more things to read up on and try to understand and consider 🙂

Spay neuter effects on sex hormones and thus on growth was also brought up and her feeling was that we start to allow spayed/neutered dogs to jump, weave and impact train too soon. Most trainers (this is true for trainers I know of also) recommend holding off with jogging with the dog / biking with the dog and agility jump training and weaves for example until the dog is at least 12 months old. Chris suggest that 20 months would be much more appropriate for a spayed/neutered dog! The earlier a dog is altered or “fixed”, the taller they grow! In doing this, we also start to put more stress on joints – image in the knee for example…and because different bones/ growth plates close at different ages it’s better to wait longer to give ample time so that all growth plates are closed (ex: Femur closes at 9-11 months, Tibia at 12-14 months). 
In the training program part of the weekend she gave lots of suggestions for what to do/ age appropriate exercises and training/ depending on the puppy’s and dog’s age. I’ll get back to that later.

We learned several really cool exercises that were completely new to me. She went over, for example, how to teach the dog to gait – on cue. Like we do with horses: “Walk” “Trot!” “Canter!” I think this will most definitely be on my fall- training list with my own dogs. It’s too long to try to describe here, but the basics is quite simple and easy – like most things: it’s just “doing it!”. We had dogs out to work and do a whole jumping sequence – how she starts to teach the skill of jumping from a wee baby puppy (we had a 10 week old Rottie pup in the group who came out and learned a baby lesson in proprioception (at that stage it is really about body awareness and moving in space, rather than “jumping”) to adult dogs learning to jump, to Lead-Leg exercises and change-of-lead exercises to how to resolve jumping problems. Tons of highly valuable information and great stuff I will certainly be using!

Overall, a great weekend with a lot of really good information. As alluded to earlier, my only criticism of the event was how unbelievably many dogs were given “working spots”. I have attended a lot of seminars and workshops before with option to “audit” or pay more for a “working spot”  and usually the reason for paying that extra fee to get a “working spot” is because one then knows there will be some individual coaching and opportunity to work with one’s own dog and get good help and feedback. On Saturday afternoon when we brought dogs out to work on strength skills I did several double-takes as I looked around the room and dogs kept coming out…more and more and more dogs…in a space where we would probably teach companion dog classes to about 8 dogs at a time. Finally I had to count, I just could not believe the number of dogs around me: I counted 28 dogs! In the same room, all trying to do some work and hope that we’d get at least 5 seconds of the instructor’s time 🙁
THAT part was disappointing. I took my two dogs – but the list of questions I went with were really all about Maggio – some of the struggles we have had with on and off lameness in the winter (luckily seems addressed now) and a big inconsistency in jumping. I really had high hopes and expectations that I would finally get some answers from an expert as to movement/ structure and thoughts on his struggle with clearing bars. But no. The question list came back home with me. Questions unanswered. With that many dogs – how would it even be possible to get any individual time?

But other than thinking I should have just audited, as the “working” piece really was a waste of money, the lecture part of the seminar was great. Lots of great ideas, tools, learning. Just not the individual coaching I had really hoped for. Still very happy I went, overall.

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