Reducing Stress to Optimize a Working Dog’s Performance

Hardworking dogs know the natural stress that comes from competing in field trials and hunting. In fact, virtually all dog sports involve stress related to travel, being in unknown surroundings and a change in routine. These stressors challenge dogs and potentially could shortchange their performance if not managed properly.
The result of stress can include gastrointestinal imbalance and diarrhea. Gut health is important to digestion, immunity and microbial balance, all which influence the optimal performance of a hardworking dog. A dog’s stool characteristics can be directly related to gut health.
The gut contains a microbial balance made up of good and bad microbes that coexist in proportion to each other. These microbes support the digestive process and help maintain a healthy colon. The gut is the largest immune organ and the body’s first line of protection against infectious microbes that are ingested. It contains a microbial ecosystem that must stay balanced for optimal performance in hardworking dogs.
An imbalance of microbes may be due to elevated levels of bad bacteria and reduced levels of good bacteria. Stress and intense exercise also can cause instability in this microbial ecosystem. To promote a healthy gut and optimize the immune system, there are several considerations for training management.
Exercise causes natural stress that challenges the immune system and intestinal tract. Excessive fatigue and inadequate daily recovery can impair a dog’s immunity and increase the risk of intestinal upset. Regular conditioning to heighten a dog’s fitness level, thus making it more difficult for fatigue to set in, is as important as training the technical aspects of field performance.
Fatigue and excessive panting, particularly in cold temperatures, can cause decreased immunity in the respiratory tract. It can trigger microbial imbalances that increase the susceptibility of stress-related diarrhea. A dog needs as much nutrient absorption as possible to support overnight recovery. Diarrhea not only impairs recovery but also results in fluid loss that can reduce hydration for the next day’s performance.
Besides conditioning, another strategy used to prevent excessive fatigue in the field is increased frequency of “timeouts,” in which a handler calls a dog to heel. It is ideal to take a timeout every 15 to 20 minutes. This offers opportunities for hydration and respiratory and heart-rate recovery. A dog’s working heart rate typically ranges from 180 to 220 beats per minute (BPM) during exercise. Spikes in heart rate can surpass 250 BPM. When a dog takes a break, his heart rate can drop dramatically, helping to avoid overexertion.
Proper conditioning on the road and at home helps counter the natural effects of stress. It also helps to maintain the intestinal balance that allows a dog to perform at an optimal level in the field, the true measure of success.