Are You Ready?

~ The Art of Conditioning ~
Part One

By Melinda Sunnarborg

Reprinted from the 12/00 Collie Club of America Bulletin.
(All rights reserved.)

"The will to win is nothing unless you have the will to prepare to win." - Zig Ziglar
In recent weeks, the media has offered a deluge of stories about the 2000 Summer Olympic Games. The local news station presented an on-going series chronicling the stories of several home town athletes in their quest to earn a gold metal. One athlete actually lived in her van so that she would not have to spend time earning rent money and could devote her waking hours to training instead. A bicycling team member took a leave of absence from his job and cycled 10 to 11 hours a DAY to condition himself for the Games.

What if the opportunity to compete in our own sport, that of showing our collies, only occurred once every four years? Would we prepare for it more seriously than we do now?

Of course, staging dog shows only once every four years is an impractical and ludicrous thought, but the concept of treating conditioning with the same focus as do the Olympic athletes certainly deserves some consideration.

The dictionary defines condition as "a state of readiness or physical fitness." Proper condition itself is made up of several important components: good health, proper coat, grooming, socialization and training, plus the handler's mental preparation. The combination of these items provides the advantage which, time after time, separates the "point winners" from the "point makers." Training ourselves to see the details and recognize perfection within each of these components is part of the challenge. As our experience grows, we become more objective in determining when our collies are really ready to win.

1.Good Health. This seems obvious, but a collie that is in poor health cannot balance the stress of being at dog shows and his attitude and performance in the ring will be affected. If he seems "off" at home, get him checked by a veterinarian. Could he have a urinary infection? Are his teeth in need of cleaning? Is there an infected tooth or gum disease? Are his eyes clear - or do they run? Check for conjunctivitis (simple infection) or an inverted eyelash causing irritation. How about tonsils? A little bit raised and reddish at certain times of the year is common and is no cause for alarm. But hugely swollen and ulcerated is of concern and the veterinarian may recommend antibiotic treatment or a tonsillectomy. An annual or bi-annual thyroid check is also an excellent idea, since a hypothyroid condition (low thyroid level) can cause sluggishness and poor coat. Have a fecal test done to rule out internal parasites. Now that the "miracle" products like Advantage and Frontline are available for treating external parasites, there are no more excuses for fleas to be hitching rides aboard our collies!

Exercise is very important to good health. When we watch the annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show on TV, we can see that all of the top-winning dogs have excellent muscle tone - especially the sporting and hound breeds. These breeds must be in top shape to work in the field all day. The judges often feel the muscle in the upper thigh to see how firm it is. Most of the top specials are road worked, either on a treadmill or with a bike. We collie people are probably more lax about this, but it is something to think about. Could our own collies herd livestock all day or would they tire out after the first few minutes?

Building good muscle tone in an adult dog (over one year of age) is easily done by gaiting him at steady trot for a few minutes each day, building up gradually to longer sessions. If you are not a jogger, this can be done on a bicycle with the dog trotting along side. The local high school track is an excellent place to do road work. Sound like too much trouble? Then remember our Olympic cyclist pedaling for 10 - 11 hours a day. A few minutes of biking with your collie hardly compares, does it? An additional benefit from this regular exercise is that a well-toned dog rarely paces. Pacing is a "lazy gait" and a dog that has been conditioned to move at a correct trot will tend to do so in the ring - another advantage that the in-shape dog has over the competition.

Along with exercise, a proper diet is key to good health. Generally, this means a foundation of premium quality dry dog food (kibble). While it seems there are as many different brands of kibble as there are grains of sand on the beach, the choice should be based on ingredients, availability, price and results. Foods should contain a good, identifiable primary protein source, such as chicken, lamb, turkey or beef, followed by the remaining ingredients (grains, dairy products, eggs, vegetable products, etc.) in descending order based on percentage of volume. Vitamins, minerals and preservatives will appear toward the end of the list. If you are in a quandary about which food to try, poll other collie breeders - especially those whose dogs have pedigrees similar to your own. "Families" of collies tend to do well on certain brands of foods. There is also an excellent Internet web site that explains dog food label terminology and compares different brands. Feeding the best kibble that is both affordable and produces excellent results, combined with light supplementation with a variety of clean, fresh foods, such as meat, egg yolks, cottage cheese, yogurt, rice, pasta and vegetables, provides a balanced, well-rounded diet for your collie.

Whether or not to add fats or oils should be decided based on the requirements of each dog. Most premium kibble has an appropriate level of fat built into the basic formula so, under most circumstances, supplementation should not be necessary. However, if your collie's skin appears dry, even with regular brushing (which stimulates the natural oils in the skin), an oil supplement might be worth a try. There are many excellent brands on the market, such as Lipaderm, Derm Caps, Linatone and others. Additionally, collies that live in areas of the country where the winters are extremely cold will naturally have a higher fat and calorie requirement during those months.

What about those "other" supplements - the ones with enzymes, trace elements, and ingredients that are supposedly missing from standard commercial dog foods? Certainly, if you don't mind adding things to the food every day, these products may be worth experimenting with. As we all know, the less pills and powders that have to be added to the food pans, the simpler the feeding process is. No single supplement can be the "silver bullet" and fix all problems. Be critical in your evaluation of supplements. Be sure you are noticing improvements that are really there, otherwise supplementation may not be worth the extra expense and effort. If you find that using a basic kibble requires the addition of one or more supplements to maintain your collies in the condition you desire, consider switching to a different kibble - one which will produce the same good results without any additives.

If you want to try out a different food or supplement, test it first on a dog that will not be shown for a while - in case the results turn out to be other than expected. And as the old saying goes: "If it ain't broke; don't fix it!" If your collies are in beautiful coat, they have hearty appetites and good stools, it's probably best to stick with what is working for you.

2.Coat Conditioning. Regardless of variety, rough or smooth, the condition of the coat is of critical importance. A collie whose coat is in its prime has that extra "glow" in the ring. Care should be taken to protect and nourish the hair shafts in order to promote growth and to extend the show season for each collie.

"Clean hair grows faster." This phrase may be well-worn, but it is true. Careful bathing encourages coat growth by stimulating the skin. Bathing can be done weekly or bi-weekly prior to and during the show season. Use tepid water and a mild shampoo. There are many fine brands of shampoos on the market. Be sure to select one that is for harsh or double-coated breeds. For frequent bathing, the shampoo can be diluted with water down to half of the normal strength so that it lasts longer and is easier to rinse off. Do not use a finishing creme rinse; the residue will make the coat soft and flat. Provided that the collie stays relatively clean between shows, it is most important to bathe him after the show to remove any residual grooming products that are coating the hair shafts. Spot-bathing (legs, tummies on males, etc.) may be sufficient prior to the show. If not, it is better to bathe twice (before and after) than it is to leave "junk" on the coat after the show.

After bathing, blow-dry the coat with a high-speed, low-heat dryer. Don't use hair dryers made for people; they run too hot. The powerful flow of air from a high-speed dryer stimulates the skin and blows the water away without baking the hair shaft. Keep the nozzle about 10 inches from the skin and blow the hair in the direction you want it to lay when the collie is groomed. A good dryer is money well-spent and is an excellent investment in the show conditioning of your collie.

Use the proper equipment when you groom the coat. The Mason Pearson natural boar bristle brush is one of the best to use. It is gentle on the hair shafts and is fine for either a rough or smooth coat. If you use a pin brush, make sure the ends of the pins are smooth, without sharp edges. Brush at least twice a week between shows to keep the coat and skin stimulated. You will get a little bit of hair out with your brush, but new coat will be growing in to replace it. Always mist the coat lightly with water before brushing to keep the static electricity down and to reduce hair breakage. Inspect the hair shafts during each grooming session. Are they healthy-looking - all the way to the tips? A "burnt-looking" tip can indicate a number of problems. The diet could be inappropriate for the dog - either too high in protein or too low in fat. The coat could be getting too much sun exposure. Keep the dog in the shade during the peak daylight hours between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. and use a sunscreen formulated for dogs. The dog might have an infection. Again, make sure his health is good. Is the weather extremely dry? Add moisture to the coat by misting with water first, then spraying on a coat conditioner. There are a number of good ones, such as Cindra Maxi-Care. A homemade formula uses a tablespoon of Cholesterol, the hair conditioner for people, dissolved in a quart of water by heating it gently on the stove. After the mixture is stirred and cooled, it can be applied to the coat using a spray bottle. The idea is to get humidity into the coat and the light oils from the coat conditioner will help seal that moisture into the hair shaft.

A common problem is a reddish cast on a tri-color coat. This is a tough one, because one or more factors could be involved, including a genetic tendency, often referred to as the "rust factor." Changing diets can sometimes help, as does providing the collie a shaded environment, and the application of a sunscreen.

It is worth mentioning here that a critical part of your collie being in top condition is the amount of coat he will be carrying on the day of the show. Rough or smooth, both varieties look their absolute best when their undercoats are in. Sometimes you will be able to get away with showing your collie with in less than full coat - or on his way out of coat, and it may be worth the gamble at a smaller show, or under certain judges. HOWEVER, as a general rule: If you are showing your dog out of coat, you are walking into the ring with an important card already stacked against you! It is up to you do decide if it is worth the time and expense to compete on that day.

3.Grooming. It goes without saying that skillful grooming is critically important for success in the show ring. It is also an area where attention to detail is a must! Again, we'll use the dogs at Westminster as an example. As the TV camera zooms in for a close-up, it is evident that each dog is an example of perfection in grooming for its respective breed. There are no stray whiskers, no wild hairs sticking up, no rough toenails, no stained eye corners or teeth. No detail is omitted.

When it comes to grooming, never stop learning! There are club-sponsored grooming seminars from which you can learn, as well as many gifted individuals who can demonstrate their techniques to you. Someone always has a better way or a handy tip that you can utilize. Two good instructional videotapes are "Trimming and Ear-Training" from the CCA Library and Sonnen Productions' "Show Grooming the Collie and Shetland Sheepdog." The latter is available from New England Serum Company (1-800-637-3786). Learn to trim properly, creating a clean, soft, natural look. A thoroughly brushed coat that is in excellent condition with plenty of undercoat will require a minimum of grooming products or "aids" on the day of the show. Train your mind to envision a mental picture of correct breed type and train your eyes to recognize the details of a perfectly-groomed collie.

If you have done your homework and kept your collie well-groomed in the weeks prior to the show, your efforts will pay off. Toenails that are trimmed weekly can be kept shorter than those allowed to become overgrown. Teeth should be brushed for a couple of minutes at least every other day in order to keep stains and tartar to a minimum. Ears and eyes should be checked during each grooming session. The coat is brushed and nourished twice weekly. All of this should be a part of your routine. Don't forget - you are preparing for your own "Olympics." You are "stacking the deck" in your own favor in preparation for the next time you compete.

In Part Two, we will look at the remaining elements of our conditioning regimen: socialization, training, and mental preparation. Afterward, we will examine how all of the components meld together to form a promising strategy for success in the show ring.

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