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Jumping for Joy

Built to soar...

Jumping is arguably the most important agility technique your dog can master although those of you who regularly wage contact wars might wish to argue that point! Jumping is required in every standard class from Agility to Jumping as well as games classes like Gamblers, Pairs and Snooker. Yet we agility aficionados don’t spend nearly as much time learning about and working on our dogs’ jumping skills as we do on those darn contacts. Award winning American author and consultant vet Dr. Christine Zink explains the basics.

Luckily, most dogs can jump naturally. In fact, dogs have several anatomical characteristics that make them much better jumpers than those other animal team-mates, horses (although there is much we can learn from the horse world about jump training). Dogs have more flexible spines, a separate radius and ulna (the bones of the lower front leg between the carpus and the elbow), so that they can turn on a dime, and feet that can grip and sense changes in the evenness of the ground. It may surprise you to learn that the stride length of a greyhound chasing a lure with abandon is longer than a thoroughbred running the Kentucky Derby. Further, there has never yet been a horse that could clear a jump one and a half times its height at the withers, yet our dogs do that and much more with dexterity. Because of these differences between dogs and horses, it is best not to borrow jump training exercises from horses and just apply them to dogs across the board. To do that would be to greatly underestimate our dogs’ unique athletic abilities.

All dogs have the right stuff for jumping. But it is true that some dogs have a little more of the right stuff than others. Because of the incredible variation in anatomy between different breeds and different individuals within each breed, it is important to understand your dog's structural strengths and weaknesses. That knowledge will allow you to design an individual jump training program for your dog that provides him with appropriate challenges on a schedule that matches his physical characteristics. That knowledge can increase your dog's longevity in the sport of agility and could even mean several extra years of fun with your canine companion.

The bigger they are...
Canine structure can be complex, and some people spend a lifetime trying to understand the relationship between dogs’ physical build and their ability to perform different physical tasks. But luckily you don't need to be an expert—even if you just know the basics, you'll be able to make more intelligent decisions as you train and compete. For example, you should know whether your dog has a light-boned, racy build, a heavy-boned, sturdy build, or an intermediate build. More slightly built dogs do have an advantage in jumping. They don’t have to carry as much weight on their frames, so they don't have to expend as much effort getting that weight off the ground or suffer as much concussion when gravity once again wins, hurling them to the ground on the other side of the jump.

Imagine a Whippet and a Clumber Spaniel standing beside each other. The two dogs are about the same height at the withers and so will have to clear jumps that are the same height. Yet, the Clumber Spaniel weighs almost three times more than the Whippet. He will have to work a lot harder to move that mass and he will fall harder when he lands. He has bigger bones to support his weight, but those muscles, ligaments, and tendons of the shoulder, back, and neck take a beating nonetheless. So, if you have one of the big dogs be a little more aware of the type of surface he has to land on, don't train on full height jumps most of the time, and keep your team-mate trim so he doesn't have to carry around any extra fat.

All dogs are born with the potential to be great jumpers. Your job is to develop and hone your dog's skills from puppyhood through his teens and for the rest of his life. Just as kids who are exposed to athletics have greater muscle development and coordination, growing dogs benefit tremendously from exposure to different physical experiences, including jumping. Because of the fragility of puppy bones and soft tissues, I recommend that dogs less than six months of age not be asked to jump higher than carpus (wrist) height although they can do all the jumping they want on their own. Dogs less than 14 months of age - when the growth plates are closed - should not be asked to jump higher than elbow height. After that, the jump heights can be gradually increased to full height.

But just because your pup can't jump full height jumps doesn't mean that he can't learn most of what there is to know about jumping. You can play lots of games that teach him where his legs are and how to coordinate his movements and help him develop some muscular strength. Then when he’s grown, the jump heights will be of minimal concern.

The key is confidence
More than anything else, to be a good jumper, a dog must have confidence. The best time for that confidence to develop is as a pup but you can also instill great confidence in shy adult dogs given the right environment. You can create an atmosphere that fosters confidence by introducing your dog to jumping in a positive environment where mistakes are ignored, experimentation is encouraged, and success is rewarded.

When your canine team-mate is young, your jumping lessons will be simple. Then, as your budding agility buddy grows, you can design jumping lessons of gradually increasing complexity. Once your adult dog can soar over jumps, by providing him with targeted, focused jumping exercises you can polish his skills while nourishing him with new muscular and mental challenges. When he is an experienced adult, give your canine team-mate complex challenges, and include sequences that he might never be exposed to in the agility ring. That is the best way to maintain your dog’s confidence even when faced with puzzling or perplexing agility courses.

Jump training is not just about teaching a dog to move from one side of an obstacle to the other. It is about helping a dog to develop the coordination to move his body in any way, whatever the circumstances require. In fact, jump training at its best will also improve a dog’s ability to weave quickly and accurately, and will help him accelerate and turn with speed and precision. Intelligent jump training will give you and your team-mate faster runs, more clean runs, and a longer agility career—what more could any canine sports nut ask for?

About the author...
M. Christine Zink, DVM, PhD has been a dog lover all her life. She got her first dog, an Irish Wolfhound, the day she graduated from Ontario Veterinary College with her DVM. From an initial interest in obedience, mainly as a survival tactic, she gradually became fascinated with all aspects of canine performance. 

While competing in performance events throughout Canada and the United States, Chris recognized a significant information gap. Owners and trainers wanted to know more about how canine structure and medical and physical conditions affect their dogs' performance, and how to keep their canine teammates healthy and injury-free. Yet little information was available.

Dr. Zink, therefore, wrote Peak Performance: Coaching the Canine Athlete, a comprehensive guide to the dog as an athlete. Her second book, Jumping from A to Z: Teach Your Dog to Soar, co-authored with Julie Daniels, has become the gold standard for jump training. Her third book, Dog Health and Nutrition for Dummies was released in 2001..

Dr. Zink has put over 60 obedience, agility, retrieving, tracking, and conformation titles on dogs from three different groups. She is a consultant on canine sports medicine, evaluating canine structure and locomotion, and designing individualized conditioning programs for active dogs. She presents Coaching the Canine Athlete ® seminars worldwide to rave reviews.

In her other life, Chris is a veterinary pathologist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, with over 100 scientific publications. There, she teaches Pathology to medical and veterinary students and does AIDS research.

 Visit Dr. Zink's website at: www.caninesports.com

Dr Chris Zink will be visiting the UK in September 2013 with seminars in the North and South of the UK. Her two day seminar Coaching the Canine Athlete is also boasting an Advanced day which investigates further injuries to the Canine Athlete. This seminar is very informative and does include practical demonstrations. For more details look on www.physio-vet.co.uk or email Lorna on Lorna@physio-vet.co.uk