With the scorching heat wave across the United States the past few weeks, there’s a lot of talk out there on preventing heat injury in dogs. One of the most common pieces of advice seen on working dog social media sites seems to be the advice to train indoors, or early in the morning or at night when it’s not so hot.
As well-intended as this advice aims to be, we’ve lost track of our mission. When an event occurs that our working dogs need to be deployed into action, will that be indoors? Early in the morning? Only at night?
There’s a saying in the Army that many will recognize: “Train as you fight.” It literally means to train under the conditions and situations that you will expect to encounter during the actual mission. Another saying is “Train so hard that the fight is easy.” Both of these sayings convey a completely opposite message from the warnings that advise against training in hot weather.
The reality is that you can’t only train in comfortable, safe conditions then expect your dog to perform to its best when the conditions aren’t so ideal. There has been very little scientific study on this topic in dogs, but what little is out there has repeatedly shown one thing: If you want your dog to be able to perform optimally for long periods of time in hot weather, you have to train for long periods of time in hot weather.
Now, we’re not saying to go outside today and run your dog into the ground! What we’re saying is that by avoiding hot weather, you condition your dog to not be able to tolerate hot weather. Start at the level of heat tolerance your dog currently has, and slowly work up to more strenuous conditions over time, the same as you would for preparing for an athletic event above your current ability. This may just be walking a half mile at a slow pace in extremely hot weather, a few times a day. Be sure to care for their paws! Watch them carefully for signs of thermal stress including excessive, uncontrolled panting, and take their rectal temperature before, during, and after work to gauge their normal working temperatures. Strop frequently and allow them to drink water, and if possible, provide a kiddie pool or water hose to cool them down during a short break. Allow their temperature to decrease to baseline, (temperature that they started with) and go back to exercise. Remember, some athletic dogs can reach 106° F or above during work and be perfectly normal if they are acclimated to that type of work!
Acclimation to exercise in heat involves several aspects you need to consider. Strength, endurance, and acclimation to heat and humidity are all important aspects to consider in your training and conditioning plan. If your dog lives indoors in air conditioning when not working, you’d expect him to be far less tolerant to ambient heat when at work outside compared to a dog that lives in an outdoor kennel. Conditioning should include a combination of short bursts of speed, core strength, and endurance activities, along with allotted time to just hang out and rest in an outdoor, shaded environment.
So when temperatures climb outdoors, take note of the well-meaning warnings, but remember that when done safely and wisely, extremely hot days are some of the best times we have to condition our dogs. You don’t want to inadvertently create a dog that is intolerant to working in the heat, because this will really show when it’s time to go to work.