Nicky Grant BSc Hons Physiotherapy, MSc Veterinary Physiotherapy, ACPAT A, MCSP, RAMP, HCPC for Win Agility

A couple of weeks ago I came across a great article by Devin Wyatt (accessed via Science for Sport accessed via https://www.scienceforsport.com/monitoring-fatigue). The article discusses how we monitor fatigue in professional athletes and how as coaches and health care professionals we can optimise performance by using and understanding the principles surrounding fatigue. This got me thinking about fatigue in our dogs and how it is so important recognise fatigue and act accordingly, especially in our young dogs. I have seen dogs, both at competition and at training days that are looking obviously fatigued, and yet they are asked to keep going, at the detriment of both performance and learning. Is this because we don’t recognise the signs of fatigue, is it because we put the signs down to something else, do we think that fatigue training is useful in our dogs, or is it we just don’t see the signs at all?

Lets consider the physiology and science behind fatigue that will help us understand how this relates this to our dog’s behavior and how it can impact on learning and performance. So what exactly is fatigue? Fatigue is a loss of performance that can be due to physiological factors or psychological factors or a combination of both. It is often thought that fatigue is purely physical, both in terms of cause and effect. Well interestingly this isn’t the case, fatigue can in fact be broken up in to two main areas, exercise induced fatigue and non-exercise induced fatigue.

Psychological fatigue is a very complex area in human sports medicine and is becoming much more understood as playing a significant part in performance. In a recent study Coutts (2014) suggests that, with the exception of military combat, team sports can place more stress on the brain than any other activity. Coutts goes on to discuss the likely reasons behind this including the players requirements to be vigilant, often for long periods of time before and during matches, they need to be responsive to the opposition and their tactics as well as playing to their own tactics and plans.

Now lets compare this to the team of you and your dog, firstly the need to be vigilant before and after competition/matches. Your dog is very likely to be highly vigilant, often for long periods of time before and after agility, especially if they are high drive and not managed to get appropriate quiet time. Why do you think you see a lot of sports people arriving on the coach with ear phones in, focused, quiet, in their zone. Do you allow your dog this down time or are they on hyper alert from the moment you arrive at training or competition?

Secondly, the need to be responsive to the opposition and their own tactics and plans. You as the handler are not quite the opposition and the dog hopefully wont be deploying their own tactics but remember your dog is needing to not only focus on their own skills and behaviours but take all their cues from you, this is tiring and there is a lot of mental energy required to do all of these tasks at the same time.

So now lets re-read the paragraph from this research paper and consider your dog as the team sports player. In a recent study Coutts (2014) suggests that, with the exception of military combat, team sports can place more stress on the brain than any other activity. Coutts goes on to discuss the likely reasons behind this including the players requirements to be vigilant, often for long periods of time before and during matches, they need to be responsive to the opposition and their tactics as well as playing to their own tactics and plans.

What do you think? Does this make you think any differently?

Young dogs are incredibly susceptible to psychological fatigue, learning new skills is incredibly challenging and takes a lot of energy. There is some evidence now that training in to fatigue on a repetitive basis in people can lead to reduced skill acquisition long term. Essentially this means that the ability to learn new skills is reduced, not just short term at the time of fatigue but for a long period of time afterwards.

This is super important information to consider with regard to how we train our young dogs, we need to recognize the signs of fatigue with our young dogs and make sure we don’t work in to them. The skill is to finish on a positive just before the fatigue kicks in, often tricky as it can happen very quickly in young dogs. If it creeps up on us before we have managed to finish on a success, I would suggest changing the behavior for something your dog finds easy and where there is a high chance of success, ask for this behavior, reward and finish.

Lets consider physical fatigue for a minute; this can be split in to two categories, central fatigue and peripheral fatigue. Central fatigue comes from the brain and is related to transmission of messages from the brain to the muscles. Peripheral fatigue occurs within the muscles at a local level and relates to the depletion of glycogen and other substances related to energy and also the accumulation of lactate that is a waste product. I think this is an easier concept to understand and relate to our dogs although often the signs are subtle, especially in high drive dogs that are running on adrenaline.

Signs and symptoms of fatigue can be very unique to each dog therefore learning the signs for your dog is important. Some examples of signs of fatigues are:

  • Switching off, loss of interest
  • A drop in motivation
  • Displacement behaviour
  • Pole knocking
  • Putting in extra strides
  • A change in movement patterning, for example starting to pace or a specific limb looking fatigued
  • Recurrent errors

These signs can obviously be suggestive of other things as well as fatigue but lets try and have fatigue at the front of our minds when we are working with our young dogs and try to prevent working in to high levels of fatigue. It seems that this approach will pay off in the long run with your young dog.

Coutts AJ, Cormack S. “Monitoring the Training Response.” High-Performance Training for Sports. Edited by Joyce D, Lewindon D. Human Kinetics, 2014.

Nicky Grant is an ACPAT and Chartered Physiotherapist at the Win Clinic in Somerset. If you would like to check out their website or contact the team the website is www.winclinic.co.uk

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