Care of the Athletic Dog

Many dogs these days lead very busy lives. In order to perform at their best, they need to be cared for like athletes. There are several factors which affect performance, those that are internal to the dog, such as genetics, physiology and psychology, and those that are external such as food, training, and type of sport.

The first step is to evaluate what a dog is capable of. This requires looking at his structure and movement to see if he will able to stand up to the work required. An evaluation of his temperament and willingness to work is also necessary. Much of the basic make-up of the dog is inherited from his parents.

We can influence his structure by correct feeding and conditioning but the underlying anatomy and gait must be sound. We can influence his temperament and willingness by socialization and ensuring the dog understands what we require, that our training is clear and fair, but if he inherited shyness from his ancestors, he will never be bold and courageous in all situations.

Considerations and Discussion points for the Performance Dog:
Feeding Puppies
Don't feed puppies for rapid growth, there is no evidence to suggest that this will increase size at maturity, and there are correlations between speed of growth and developmental conditions in susceptible animals. You don't know whether your pup is pre-disposed to any of these conditions, so why take the risk!  Recent research has also suggested a link between over-supplementation of calcium and developmental problems. It has been suggested that care should be taken when switching a pup to adult food - that the amount of food required to maintain the correct weight does not contain too much calcium.

Feeding Adults
Keep adults lean, this helps them to avoid unnecessary strain on the joints and helps them to dissipate heat while working. Many people disagree on supplements, but a boost of specific nutrients just after exercise has been shown to increase recovery rates.

Drinking Water
Water should always be available except immediately after strenuous exercise. The dog can be given a little cool, but not ice cold, water just after the activity, but he should be fully cooled off and his heart rate back to normal before offering a full bowl. Sometimes a dog will gorge himself on cold water straight after exercise and bloat.

Hot Weather
In warm summers (above 70F), the dog should be fully conditioned to the environment, work should be gradually built up. The dog should spend as much time outdoors, in the conditions he will work in, as possible, this helps him become acclimatized. Know how to cope with an emergency.

Warm-up and Cool-down
It is important to warm up and cool down before and after exercise. Warm-up and stretching can reduce the risk of injury. If you do a lot of heeling, you should take special care to do some passive stretches with the neck and back bending in the opposite direction. If you stretch your dogs legs gently, you can also see if he is feeling sore, as he will try to pull away, a couple of days rest could prevent a much more serious injury.

Allow your dog to move naturally
Always heeling with the head in one position can lead to problems in muscles and joints, encourage your dog to stretch the other way while playing with a toy, maybe try different sports, or some TTouch ground work to help him with balance and independent movement.

Teach your dog to jump properly
Begin your dog jumping with small jumps and a favorite toy, don't drag your dog over the jump by a leash, this leads to him throwing himself over anyway he can. He will not learn to enjoy jumping and he may injure himself. Try not to do too much until the dog is a 12 to 18 months old. Try the Natural Jumping Method. This method actually teaches the dog how to jump, he learns to use his brain while jumping, so he is not just throwing himself over.

Take your dog to a chiropractor
Don't wait until your dog is lame or injured before taking him to see a chiropractor. Often problems exist that the owner can't easily see, and a trip to the chiropractor can bring about amazing improvements in performance. Click here for the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association.

Common Health Problems

Many German Shepherds have mild health issues which may lower their potential for work. This is a collection of some of the problems I have had experience with and have found alternative treatments to help conquer. Sometimes a change in location, food or supplements can help.
Note: This is not a substitute for veterinary advice!
Many dogs and humans currently seem to be suffering with allergies. These often manifest in dogs as itching, dry or red skin, and may be a factor in recurring ear infections or hot spots. Allergy tests can be done at a veterinary clinic to pinpoint food or environment related causes. An elimination diet may also be useful in diagnosing the cause. In the case of mild itching and scratching, moving to a raw or BARF diet can help and sometimes cure completely. With more severe problems, where the dog is clearly uncomfortable and has open sores or large red areas you should see your veterinarian.

Supplements which have helped many dogs include the addition of Salmon Oil capsules which can be added to the food up to a dose of 1000mg per 10lbs body weight. Borage Oil can also help, the dose for this is typically 1000mg per 50lbs body weight. Borage Oil has been wonderful with my itchy dog to ease the itches in the hot Texas summers. A good article about skin problems can be found at A probiotic/enzyme blend can also help alleviate some symptoms of allergies. Some people have found dried nettle leaf helps given at a rate of 1tsp per 50lbs. Yucca can also help in the short term to reduce inflammation and halt severe itching episodes.

The Whole Dog Journal contains very good articles on these and other alternative remedies. Obviously you should not try all these supplements at once, start with adding salmon oil for a few weeks and see if scratching decreases. You may also want to find a veterinarian who practises alternative treatments.

Shampoos which can help with the itching include oatmeal and tea tree preparations. One of these is Purepet Herbal Skin Therapy Shampoo which can be bought online and at various pet stores. A tea tree rinse after shampooing can also help. This is made by adding ½tsp Tea tree oil to one pint of water. This rinse is poured over the dog and left on.

Hot Spots
Hot Spots can be caused by bites by insects such as fleas, mosquitos etc or spiders, or by the dog scratching or biting a part of his body. They are particularly common in hot and humid places. They begin as a red inflammation, then quickly get larger and often yellowy or crusty. The quicker you can apply treatment, the better. Cut the hair away all around the spot so you can see at least half an inch of normal skin. The best treatment I have found is Witch Hazel, Aloe and Tea Tree. I mix 4oz of Thayer's Witch Hazel with Aloe with 10 drops of pure tea tree oil in a small spray bottle, and squirt that on to the hot spot twice a day. This mixture is excellent for drying up hot spots and wounds. If the hot spot is over a joint, it may be that the dog is experiencing some discomfort there, a trip to a chiropractor to remove the root cause can prevent recurrence. Hot Spots can also be caused by collars, so be sure to check the dog's neck regularly and cleanse and thoroughly dry any rubbed areas. With my Golden Retriever, I found Sulfodene very useful if applied quickly, but his hot spots would spread very quickly and often required a course of the antibiotic, Cephalexin to clear them up.

Ear Infections
Some GSDs are very prone to ear infections, usually one particular ear. Again, the best prevention is keeping a close eye on the dog, and treating as soon as any symptoms appear. Black goo in the ear, scratching, and the ear appearing to be set on the side of the head are indications. Keeping the ears clean, and removing grains from the diet can help, be gentle when cleaning the ear, and try not to clean too often as irritation might be a catalyst for infection. The mix that I use for hotspots also works well to clean ears and for mild infections. I mix 4oz of Thayer's Witch Hazel with Aloe with 10 drops of pure tea tree oil in a small spray bottle, and pour it into the ear twice a day for 2-5 days. This will usually clear mild infections, but if there is no improvement in a couple of days, a trip to the vet may be in order.

Not a condition in itself but a symptom of illness or stomach upset, diarrhea is more common in some dogs than others. Some dogs are sensitive to very fatty meats, or a change in diet from cooked to raw and vice-versa. The most effective way to stop diarrhea is to withold food for 24 hours, and then offer half a can of pure pumpkin with 2tbsp of yoghurt (for a 50lb dog), an additional enzyme/probiotic might also help. I love B-Naturals Digestion Blend for dogs with sensitive stomachs.

Many German Shepherd pups experience pano during their rapid growth in the first year or so. My experiences have been between 4 and 11 months of age, with between a week and two months duration. Pano is considered to be self limiting, so while it is distressing for an owner to see, a sore pup will rest more and recover quicker. Make sure your pup has a comfortable bed, and limit his exercise. If your pup looks a little chubby at this point, cut down his food a little, this may help to slow his growth and limit the time he is sore. A glucosamine chondroitin supplement may also help. I currently use B-Naturals Flexile Plus for my growing dogs.

German Shepherds seem to be prone to disorders associated with the immune system. One possible cause of Hypothyroidism is thought to be autoimmune disease. This is also thought to be hereditary. It often shows up between the ages of 2 and 5 and has many disparate symptoms. If your dog shows a strange change in behavior, gains weight or has skin and hair problems, it may be a good idea to have a simple test done to see if thyroid dysfunction may be a cause. The medication is inexpensive and effective but the dog must be monitored with regular blood tests to ensure the dosage is correct.