Musculoskeletal Development & Early Training

There is nothing more thrilling than developing a well-bred puppy into a top canine athlete. Puppies should be introduced gradually to the work they will be expected to perform in field trials and hunt tests.
“You should start by building a foundation, such as concept training that introduces dogs to the idea of the sport,” says James L. Cook, D.V.M., Ph.D., DACVS, DACVSMR, director of the Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory at the University of Missouri. “You don’t want to do too much too soon because the musculoskeletal system is not mature until dogs are 10 to 18 months old. Early training should focus on core-strengthening activities that promote muscle and nerve control, because the soft tissues can be influenced the most.”
Cook was one of four experts who presented talks on ways to enhance canine performance at the 2014 Purina Sporting Dog Summit held in July. The two-and-a-half day program, titled “Achieving a Performance Edge,” was held at the Purina Event Center in Gray Summit, Missouri. Some of the country’s top dog handlers and trainers, as well as sporting dog journalists, attended the Summit.
Start Slowly for Success
Understanding how a dog’s muscles and nerves develop provides insights about how to protect the delicate balance between the soft tissues and bone growth. Because the growth plates are “open” during growth, they are susceptible to fractures and other damage that can cause abnormal growth, pain, and lameness. Fortunately, many developmental disorders can be reduced by avoiding stressful activities and training methods that could traumatize the muscles and nerves, by monitoring a dog’s development, and by providing proper nutrition.
“Concussive, high-intensity and/or long-duration activities can negatively affect the development and health of soft tissues like muscles, tendons, ligaments and joint capsules,” Cook says. “When this occurs, the soft tissue cannot ‘keep up’ with bone growth and developmental problems occur.”
Genetics, environment, and nutrition contribute to developmental problems in young dogs. Being aware of potential problems can help reduce the incidence. 
“Because the genetic components of most major orthopedic problems in dogs are polygenic, we cannot expect to eliminate them through breeding programs,” says Cook. “The best we can do to minimize the prevalence and severity of these problems—and to produce and find individual puppies with the lowest chance of having a problem—is to use the principle of pedigree depth. The further back into the lineage you can go without the problem, the more likely the puppies will not have the problem.”
The Role of Nutrition 
The role of nutrition in development is important. Puppies should be fed a complete and balanced puppy food or an all life stages food until they are skeletally mature. Large-breed retriever puppies, which weigh from 50 to 75 pounds as adults, require fewer calories per unit of body weight and mature at a slower rate. Excess weight directly affects the growth plates and the potential for traumatic disorders; thus, experts recommend feeding a large-breed puppy food that is formulated with reduced levels of fat and calories to help slow the rate of growth. 
Monitoring dogs for ideal body condition, described as having an hourglass shape, should begin with puppies, which should have a body condition score of four to five using the nine-point Purina Body Condition Score System ( “When puppies are 6 to 7 months of age, you should see and feel the muscles in the thigh,” Cook says.
Conditioning Considerations
When a puppy matures into a young adult dog with a fully developed musculoskeletal system, it is safe to begin a conditioning program. “You should determine your performance goal, the timeframe to accomplish it, and then work backward,” says Cook. 
Individualized training should incorporate cross-training and core-stabilization exercises, which help to build strength and endurance. They also help reduce mental and physical burnout. Examples of core-stabilization exercises include leg lifts, weight shifting, dancing, swimming, leash walking, cavaletti exercises, and hill work. 
“The most important takeaway is to remember that to prevent injuries you should always warm up a dog before training and competition, allow time for recovery between high-intensity training and sporting events, and cool down a dog after exercise,” Cook says.
Recovery is a key aspect for hardworking sporting dogs. Benefits include improving strength, increasing the range of motion and functioning, reducing pain, injuries, and the need for medications, and improving weight management and cardiovascular health. 
There are many considerations when developing a young dog into an elite canine athlete. Giving the dog’s musculoskeletal system time to mature before expecting intense work that could cause injuries is important. Early training should incorporate the concept of the sport, and most importantly, having fun together.