Fitness and Nosework

Understanding the physical requirements of the sporting dog.

Nosework is one of the best sports for a dog with physical ailments or disabilities. A strong nose and active mind are the only real requirements! 

But, even if your dog does have some form of disability, it is vital that we do our best, as owners and handlers, to keep our dogs as "in shape" as possible.

If you refer to your Handbook, you will see that physical health can be a cause of internal stress. If the dog wants to do something, but is physically unable or not fit enough, it can cause psychological conflict, depression, and a decline in performance.

What can we do to make sure our dogs are healthy enough to play? Let's review the sporting requirements for some of our dogs' organ systems!

The Musculoskeletal System

Courtesy The Merck Manual of Pet Health

Courtesy The Merck Manual of Pet Health

While the physical demands of nosework are limited to how quickly your dog can walk, we have to recognize that pre-existing physical ailments of the bones and joints can affect not only how our dog is physically capable of performing, but also how our dog is mentally capable of performing.

Anyone with arthritis or joint pain knows that sometimes simple tasks are impossible if you move just right way, or if there's a storm coming in, or if you over did it the day before.

Keep in mind these potential musculoskeletal ailments that can affect nosework performance:

  • Arthritis
  • Degenerative joint disease (DJD)
  • Joint laxity and subluxation
  • Soft-tissue injury (pulled muscle, torn tendon, etc.)
  • Fractures/breaks
  • Over-use 
  • Overweight or underweight

When we ask our dogs to do things like search up high or down low (past midline), when we ask them to alert utilizing a sit or a down, when we ask them to search for extended periods of time, we must first make sure that any "disobedience" of behavior is not because of a musculoskeletal problem preventing them from physically completing the behavior.

The Cardiovascular and Respiratory Systems

The cardiovascular and respiratory systems are two of the most important systems in your dog's body. They are what keeps their heart beating, and their blood flowing and healthily oxygenated. 

Keep in mind that heart disease can cause exercise intolerance and syncope. A lack of effort on the dog's part may be more physical than mental if the dog has a history of cardiovascular insufficiency. 

Respiratory distress is probably the most likely cause of failure in nosework. Dogs with respiratory ailments may miss target odors because of their impairment, not because of a lack of understanding or recognition. 

Common ailments in these systems include:

  • Congestive heart failure (CHF)
  • Subaortic stenosis (SAS)
  • Dilated cardiomyopathy (DCM)
  • Mitral valve disease (MVD)
  • Pulmonary effusion
  • Chronic bronchitis
  • Brachycephaly
  • Stenonic nares
  • Tracheal collapse

You will notice that brachycephaly and stenotic nares are included in this list of respiratory ailments. Dogs with narrowed and modified skull and nose structures are more likely to be affected by respiratory impairment during scent detection work.

Brachycephalic dogs tend to be more prone to exercise intolerance and heat exhaustion than their longer-nosed counterparts. This is especially true of extreme brachycephalic dogs (Pugs, English and French Bulldogs, Shih-Tzu, Pekingese, Boxers, Lhasa Apso, Japanese Chin, and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are among the most extreme). While other dog breeds qualify as brachycephalic, these breeds are especially prone to the dangers and impairments that face this skull structure. 

Dogs afflicted with stenotic nares (especially common in extreme brachycephalic dogs) are most at risk of inability to perform scent work due to their physical structure. Open your mouth and take a breath; now, grab a straw and try to breath through that. Dogs with stenotic airways must attempt to breathe "through a straw"; expecting them to do well in scent detection is asking them to overtax their already overtaxed respiratory system.  

Nervous System

Courtesy The Merck Manual of Pet Health

Courtesy The Merck Manual of Pet Health

Disruptions of normal neurologic function are obviously cause for concern for any sporting dog. Luckily, because nosework is not inherently physically demanding, dogs with neurologic impairment can safely play as long as their veterinarian and handler are aware of and can mitigate the risks.

On top of physical ailments that surface due to neurologic dysfunction, included in this section is psychological disorders.

Common neurological ailments that may impede scent detection work include:

  • Ataxia
  • Epilepsy
  • Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
  • Paralysis
  • Deafness
  • Blindness
  • Anxiety
  • Phobias

When working with a dog with neurologic deficits, we must tailor our training methods to make their work as safe and easily understandable as possible. 

For physical, neurologic ailments that affect the way a dog moves or perceives its environment, training must reflect what the dog is physically capable of learning. While we would not expect an ataxic dog to perform a formal alert, we can and would expect a deaf dog (with no other physical abnormalities) to be able to perform a formal alert. Again, being aware of the dog's physical limitations allows conflict-free work between dog and handler.

For dogs with psychological disorders, we must be cautious when pushing them past their comfort zones (though it must be done, though thoughtfully and systematically). While dogs with generalized anxieties may need to move slowly through all aspects of training, some dogs just need certain aspects of training more tailored to their psychological needs. Our goal is to grow the dog's overall confidence through clear, fair training methods.

Integumentary System

The integumentary system is involved with all things skin. While some skin disorders are benign and the dog may not notice them (types of alopecia, for instance), many skin disorders come with varying degrees of pruritus (or itchiness).

Common causes of skin disorders include:

  • Fungal
  • Bacterial
  • Endocrine
  • Compulsive disorders
  • Immunologic 

If your dog is itchy, infected, or is otherwise not feeling well, it is best to wait until the dog is feeling better on the outside before trying to work on the inside. Since many skin disorders can be treated and cured within a couple weeks, it is best to hold off on any difficult training until the dog is healed. Working a dog that is in pain (even if it seems to you to be inconsequential) can develop negative conditioned emotional responses to the work. 

Dogs with chronic conditions should be monitored closely to assure that their condition does not affect their mental status during training. 

Digestive and Genitourinary Systems

Courtesy the Merck Manual of Pet Health

Courtesy the Merck Manual of Pet Health

It should go without saying that any dog currently dealing with any type of digestive disorder should wait until they are healthy before resuming normal training. Training can add stress to the dog's already taxed system, thereby exacerbating any current issues. Additionally, dogs that are feeling under the weather may refuse to perform behaviors, may have an accident (not good for trials or your dog's social experience), and/or may develop a negative conditioned emotional response. 

Oral disease, while not typically considered a burden for trainers outside of the protection world, can be a cause of concern for some dogs. Almost all dogs, without frequent dental cleanings, develop some form of oral disease as they reach adulthood. Because of this, fractures, inflammation, and disease may be present and affecting your dog's overall attitude and performance. 

Additionally, genitourinary disorders are particularly troubling for some dogs as they can cause not only frequent accidents but also pain and overall malaise. 

Disorders or ailments of these systems that may affect nosework performance include:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Pancreatitis
  • Intestinal parasites
  • Bacterial or viral disease
  • Foreign body
  • Bladder or kidney infection
  • Bladder or kidney stones
  • Oral disease
  • Anal sac disease
  • Liver disease

If your dog is exhibiting any degree of discomfort resulting from any of these ailments, it is best to leave them at home (especially in the cases of possible contagions). 

Bottom line...

A healthy dog is a happy dog. Healthy, happy dogs learn best. Health is not limited to physical disorders- neurologic and psychological disorders are of a lot of concern to your training as well.

For the sporting dog, performance is never mandatory. For the sake of your training, your trainer, fellow students, and your dog, please leave sick dogs at home. At Kaiser K9, we promise to always work with you in these special cases to help you make up any missed class or instructional time.

If your dog has a chronic condition or impairment but you believe they would still enjoy this game, please let us know ahead of time! This way, we can tailor the dog's training and behavioral requirements to the dog's abilities. 

We want every dog to succeed- to do that, we need to know what your dog is and is not physically and mentally capable of. 

In our house, we have a dog with cardiopulmonary dysfunction, a dog with a semi-chronic knee condition, a dog with a chronic elbow condition, and a dog with only one kidney. Each dog has things they can and cannot do based on their physical health. Additionally, we have dogs that require special consideration when doing any type of social event or outing. Each dog has different training and lifestyle requirements. Believe us when we say we understand you and your dogs' needs; please don't be afraid to ask us for any type of special consideration!

We recommend, if your dog has any type of health concerns, before training, to consult with your veterinarian to see if nosework or group classes are appropriate for your individual dog.

We reserve the right to recommend discontinuing training for any dog we feel is not physically or mentally prepared for certain aspects of training.

We have had a lot of success with shy, nervous, and anxious dogs in small class or private lesson settings- if your dog fits in one of those categories, consider contacting us for a private lesson!