by Karen J. Brittan

Conditioning is a very misunderstood term by many people, but it specifically applies to the fitness of the dog both physically and mentally, much like an athlete in his prime.

A schnauzer should be mentally willing to accept whatever comes his way, either passively or aggressively, depending on the situation; he should be afraid of nothing, and most issues should be beneath his concern unless they directly apply to him.

He should be in good muscle-tone, with no excess weight to hamper his, hopefully, flowing movement. (Our breed was patterned, after all, on a working breed, even if some seem to want to turn it into a real terrier.) Muscles should be rock-hard, not spongy and soft. When you place your hand on his ribcage, you should be able to feel his ribs easily without having to push down and feel around for them.

It is a sad fact that, as a dog groomer, 99% of the dogs (mostly schnauzers) that I see are overweight. It is a sad fact that, as an exhibitor, 99% of the schnauzers that I saw at shows recently, both in conformation and obedience, were overweight. Somehow, somewhere, people seem to have gotten the notion that our breed should look like little (and often large) extruded sausages and have taken to substituting fat for muscle tone. Is it no wonder that our breed suffers from so many health problems?! I once asked a veterinarian what was the most common problem she saw in Miniature Schnauzers, and she responded, "Diabetes.... and every one of them was overweight." Please, keep that in mind...

Proper conditioning follows a very fine line. It is the correct balance between good nutrition, amount of food, and exercise. First the dog should be gotten into his proper weight. This will vary from dog to dog, depending on his height and density of bone. The average adult schnauzer should only be getting a total of one cup of food daily (no treats, throw them away!). For the smaller ones, one cup would be too much; a larger schnauzer might require a bit more, depending on his activity level (couch potatoes don't require much fuel). Measure his food out every day. Obviously, if he needs to diet, he should be fed a bit less until the correct weight is achieved. If he seems hungry (they all do.....they're schnauzers!), divide the portion in half and give twice a day, or set some aside for his "treats".

Sunny's best condition was when he was walking five miles a dayAny serious exercise program should not begin until a dog is over a year of age as everything is still growing before this and damage could result if a young dog is pushed too hard and too quickly. All dogs are different, and some require more effort to get proper muscle tone than others. One could start out with nice little walks, keeping the dog at a brisk trot, gradually increasing the distance until the two are going anywhere from 2-5 miles a day. Going uphill is especially beneficial, as it develops the rear more, and keeping the dog on a softer surface such as dirt or grass is much easier on his structure than pounding on concrete. No time to spare for walks? Teach the dog to retrieve and throw a ball for him to bring back. He'll soon have a tongue dragging, but this won't benefit *you* as much as the walking would have!

Witch working out on treadmillIf one is doing performance events with his dog, I cannot stress conditioning enough. Proper conditioning can help to prevent injuries. Here our agility and conformation dogs are taught to run uphill on a human treadmill. Their time is gradually and slowly built up until they are trotting 30 minutes a day on the treadmill. This makes for awesome condition, as they can come off of an agility run without even panting!

What does one do with our infamous Winter in Minnesota or if there is no treadmill available? Teach the dog to go away on command by using treats (yes, treats!) and stationing yourself and your assistant at opposite ends of a set of, preferably, carpeted stairs. The dog is called first up, and then down, the stairs with treats given at either end to make him race from one handler to the other. When he's gotten the game figured out, eliminate the treat at the bottom of the stairs and only give at the top. The idea is for him to race up the stairs and go down more slowly. When the dog is properly trained, one handler should be able to send him down the stairs and have him return up for his treat. I would set out twenty pieces of kibble and when it was gone, knew that the dog had made at least twenty trips up the stairs. (Be careful! They try to cheat and only go treat!) If your schnauzer does stairs by hopping down from one step to the other instead of trotting down, this may not be a good exercise program for him as it is then much harder on his front assembly, and if he should not be too great in this area anyway, he will likely break down quicker and go out at the elbows sooner. I have also stationed myself at the bottom of the stairs and thrown tennis balls so that they ricocheted off the wall at the head of the stairs (one can use pieces of kibble for this, too) and bounced back down where I caught them before the dog grabbed the ball and ended the game. (The dog would race up to try and catch the ball, and then would be called down to the bottom to start over again.) I guarantee that this little exercise will build muscle like you won't believe!

It is very important that the dog always be exercised on a fairly empty stomach, and please make certain that he has cooled down sufficiently (no panting) before feeding him. Don't let him tank up on water either, and keep in mind that cold water may cause cramps. The better-conditioned the dog, the quicker he cools down. Any exercise, be it for conditioning, training, or trialing, should begin with a warm-up session and end with a cool-down period to avoid injuries.

One thing to keep in mind when conditioning is that muscle tissue is heavier than fat. As his muscle mass increases (along with the food portions in order to keep him in proper weight), there will be a weight gain once again. Just remember that you should still be able to feel his ribs easily by simply placing your hand on his ribcage.

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