Beat the Heat

Written by: Mary Lott

As we approach warmer weather I remembered all the times in late summer last year when my dogs were on their feet and working for several hours at a time and wondered what more I could do for my coated breed to make them comfortable in the heat.

I have friends in both the working ranch dog and the commercial flock world and started to ask questions about heat, exhaustion, and resistance to both.

I looked at the agility world with dogs that were doing training in the heat and of course the minute sprints of total physical output in competition. I chatted with my two coaching friends who have high school track teams and handle marathon, cross-country and the track events.

The following observations are what I plan to follow through with treating my boys like trained athletes to keep them sound and healthy. Compared to a dog that earns its living by working 12/7 and close to every day of the year…I have couch potatoes. Compared to my dogs, many dogs out there, many Beardies, may not have to look to “extra” help in times of an unusual work load.

If I take into consideration that my dogs do get out and put in long hours of continuous work: how do I keep my dog from overheating?

There’s apparently no “cure” for it, only management practices. One of the things about overheating is that the more it happens, the more it happens. In other words, a dog that has overheated will do it more easily the next time.

“True” overheating is also called exercise intolerance and happens because the dog is unable to metabolize lactic acid in the muscles so it builds up and causes the dog to overheat. It seems to also have a “mental” component”. A high drive, intense dog can overheat very quickly doing something that it gets really “into.”

An example of this is a Labrador that can play ball for hours without a problem, but throw him a retriever bumper and he overheats, or, an individual dog that can calmly wait around for “his turn” to work will fare far better in the overheating department than one that works itself up while anticipating his turn on the stock.

Here are the points I have started to work on as of last February

1. Condition, condition, condition, condition. This doesn’t mean just work/train your dog, or run your dog behind a 4-wheeler: it’s a year-round program that includes aerobic and anaerobic fitness, muscular fitness (particularly core), AND mental fitness.

My dogs’ needs should be viewed in the perspective of already fit dogs working at maximal capacity, rather like elite athletes. For most recreational trial dogs; dogs working small holdings; and pets diet isn’t the critical factor. Conditioning is.

Fat becomes the preferred energy source for muscles, working aerobically (meaning that exercise is moderate and there is sufficient oxygen reaching the muscles so that no lactic acid is produced). A fit dog at the trot is working aerobically. He’s getting enough oxygen to the muscles to “burn” fuel (fat or glycogen) completely to CO 2 and water. The “fat adapted” dog will use fat as fuel more efficiently and use less glycogen, so the glycogen stores decrease much slower and the dog can work longer. Also in a fit dog, the point at which anaerobic metabolism kicks in is higher than in an unfit dog.

A dog running flat out is working anaerobically. He can’t get enough oxygen to the muscle to breakdown fat, so the muscle will have to use glycogen stores, but without oxygen this can only be partially broken down, producing lactic acid as a by-product. When lactic acid levels get high enough, the dog will “tie up” – muscles will no longer contract whether he has glycogen stores in the muscle and liver or not. It’s like running a marathon vs. running the 400m. An elite marathon runner runs 26 miles in about 2.25 hours, about 12mph. Without careful diet, training, and “adaptation” he/she will run out of glycogen around mile 20 (hitting the wall), but most good runners these days don’t experience that. A 400m runner runs flat out doing the quarter mile in 45 sec or at 20mph. The 400m runner starts to tie up at around 300m because running that fast there is no way he can get enough oxygen to the muscles and the lactic acid is building up quickly, even though he has lots of glycogen stores and is running 1/65th the distance the marathon runner is running.

A really fit dog can get more oxygen to the muscles than an unfit dog, is more efficient, probably leaner, so can work harder longer. For the AVERAGE dog, just like for the average human, conditioning will give greater improvement in the ability to work longer and in hotter weather than changes in diet. Thus the observation that the “auld shepherd’s dogs worked the hills all day on a half bowl of oatmeal and buttermilk” has an element of truth, because they grew up working all day and were in great shape.

For dogs in great shape, used to working long days, diet may make a significant difference in their ability to work that bit longer and more importantly in how quickly they recover from work. For pet dogs and hobby herders, spending the early spring getting dogs in shape will pay bigger dividends.

The usage of “fat” was examined in a 1995 study by a group at Cornell University reported in J of Applied Physiology 79:1601-1607, (

This study was conducted independently; was peer reviewed and was not sponsored by any feed company. They took two groups of 8 sled dogs, put one group on a high carbohydrate diet (60% calories starch), and another on a high fat diet (60% of calories from fat), the two diets had equal total calories, and kept them around for a few months. Then they tested them on anaerobic work (running fast uphill on a treadmill) and aerobic work (trotting on a level treadmill). They tested total muscle glycogen, blood lactic acid levels, and lactate/pyruvate ratios before and after exercise.

Then one group, with dogs from both feeding regimens, undertook a four-month training program starting at 2km three times per week and working up to 10km three times per week, plus anaerobic training (high speed intervals on the treadmill). After which, they tested both groups again.

The results:

Trained dogs had lower lactic acid levels in their blood after either aerobic or anaerobic exercise regardless of which diet they were on.

Anaerobic training produced a 2X increase in muscle glycogen stores over 8 weeks of training regardless of the diet.

Dogs on the high carbohydrate diet actually had higher glycogen levels in muscle, but burned glycogen at a faster rate and so could work at lower intensity and for shorter periods during aerobic exercise than dogs on the high fat diet, suggesting that dogs on the high fat diet were preferentially using fats instead of glycogen as an energy source, and sparing the glycogen for when they needed bursts of anaerobic energy.

Dogs on the high carbohydrate diet did not produce lactic acid at higher rates than dogs on high fat diets during anaerobic exercise and were not at a higher risk of tying up during anaerobic exercise. This was an unexpected finding.

Bottom line: this study shows that while a high fat diet will increase a dog’s ability to work aerobically for longer periods of time, training and conditioning (anaerobic and aerobic) produce a greater effect.

For those of us not fortunate enough to have high-speed treadmills in our basements, outruns of 200-600 yards would be anaerobic work as would the kind of sprinting dogs do for no apparent reason or when chasing balls, Frisbees, or anything else. As for the aerobic work; if you don’t ranch thousands of acres a day, ever fancied training for the Boston marathon?

The good news (or bad if you routinely run with your dogs) is that they get in shape about 10X faster than we do and seem to maintain condition longer between workouts (of course they also do not have free choice access to chocolate, pizza, and beer in between workouts).

As well as muscular fitness we need to work on building mental fitness – the ability to handle stressful situations. This would include (but not be limited to): many, many commands in a short period of time; stress from the livestock; handling unfamiliar situations; handling travel; and the like.

2. Diet, diet, diet. Do your own research. Higher protein, higher fat diets (when combined with solid conditioning) have a record of helping heat tolerance.

Protein levels less than 26% could be associated with increased soft tissue injuries. Levels of 26% or more are needed by the muscle to repair stressed fibers. Since I have a Beardie that suffered a soft tissue injury at age two, I have really looked at this carefully in regards to heat and physical output.

Fat adaptation seems to be an efficient means of increasing endurance. Fat should provide 50-60% of the total calories fed. It takes 6 weeks for the dog to “adapt” to utilizing fat for energy. Once “adapted” fat becomes the preferred energy source for muscles and provides energy via aerobic oxidation which means no lactic acid production.

I became interested in this area when a working dog began to get the “staggers” or “tying up”. Basically “tying up” (exertional rhabdomyolysis – ER) occurs when the dog runs out of conventional sources of energy and starts breaking down its muscle to provide energy. What we see is a dog “hitting the wall”, weakness, staggering, extreme panting and loss of cognitive function. Myoglobin is a protein primarily found in heart and skeletal muscle which stores oxygen that can be used when insufficient oxygen is being brought by the blood. If muscle tissue breaks down, myoglobin is released into the blood and is excreted in the urine, which turns the urine a reddish brown color when significant levels are present. Severe cases can lead to death… just like overheating.

Working dogs need to get up to 60% of their energy from fat. Unlike humans, dogs use up their glycogen stores within minutes of exertion. If there is not a good source of circulating fatty acids, the body will turn to breaking down the protein of muscles next. If one provides adequate fat in the diet, the dog will preferentially utilize that as the energy source. This not only spares the muscle, but also increases a dog’s endurance.

A “good carbohydrate” can be given in small volume, is readily absorbed and doesn’t cause the release of insulin. Maltodextrin (also called Dextrin) fits this definition. It can be mixed with a small volume of water and given to “hot” dogs soon after exercise. It’s rapidly absorbed without stimulating insulin release (so there is no rebound hypoglycemia). Mixing a small amount of protein with the maltodextrin is synergistic.

There are a few products on the market for recharging exhausted dogs. Many of them contain other supplements (antioxidants, vitamins, joint protectants, etc.) in addition to maltodextrin. Keep in mind, the “good carb” should be given only after exercise to refill glycogen stores. Antioxidants, vitamins and joint supplements should be given daily. If a maltodextrin supplement is given everyday, it’ll provide excess carbohydrate and could decrease the dog’s endurance and/or make it fat! So, provide the antioxidants, vitamins and joint protectants with the dog’s regular diet, not with the glycogen replacer!

Some maltodextrin mixes even have electrolytes in them. Dogs don’t lose electrolytes when they exercise because they don’t sweat. Providing excess electrolytes can lead to imbalances that can be detrimental to the dog’s health (it can cause a shift of fluid from cells into the GI tract causing dehydration and diarrhea). Straight maltodextrin or a mix of maltodextrin/protein (such as Glyco-Gen Energy Shake mix) is the simple solution. Many dogs don’t like the straight maltodextrin and it can be difficult to mix. Energy Edge (makers of Glyco-Gen Energy Shake mix) uses a high quality maltodextrin which makes mixing much easier and they add a bit of protein and vanilla making it palatable to most dogs.

3. Exposure. Get your dogs used to handling heat. Methods range from training, working, and conditioning in the heat, to inducing heat while working (think: neoprene vest). Be sure to do this carefully, never combining the vest with a hot day, and monitoring your dog for signs of over-heating.

4. Medical issues. Check for anemia; worms; heartworm; heart defects; pain – both acute and chronic; respiratory problems; structural and musculoskeletal problems that preclude your dog from performing demanding work; bad teeth; and anything else that might affect his ability to function. Regular check ups to make sure he remains healthy are even more important for the working dog than for other dogs

5. EIC (Exercise Induced Collapse). While this is being widely researched in Labradors, Bearded Collies have not been included in any of the studies, although there have been reports that the condition does exist in the breed.

Every dog is different so they have to have an individually tailored training and diet program. I had a young dog that used to work himself up and started to pant very quickly before and during work, so I had to be careful to work and train calmly and quietly to settle him and yes, this has worked quite well

I condition my dogs… all year long. From my vet I obtained a base figure for heart, respiratory rate and temperature, as well as parameters for how high each could go safely after a work-out. I was shown HOW to find those indicators of my dogs’ health. During the winter we power walk with four 15-minute sessions three times a week. This keeps my dogs at a steady trot on compound surfaces. Both my younger dogs have been taught to “lunge” and this gives them a good run in both directions in wide circles (90 foot diameter), again at a steady pace. We have built up to about 6 min in either direction, two to three times a week.

Admittedly it’s easier in the Spring, Summer and Fall when they are actually working but we still power walk and lunge at least once a week. Since last October I have checked at the very least their heart and temperatures to get a feel for healthy exertion. The most severe differences can happen on days when it is 75 degrees F, AND 70 % plus of humidity.

I have switched my boys’ food as of January 07 to one with a higher protein as well as a higher fat content. Orijen Adult with its higher usable protein and fats is now my food of choice, and has provided a very stable platform for my dogs over all performance.

I also have used, so far with great success and following EXACTLY the recommendation of the manufacturer, the following supplements:

Glyco-Gen energy Shakes. This is now my primary source of supplemental help on hot exhausting days. I give the recommended dosage within 30 minutes of exercise. (

K9 Go Drink is my back up for high “good” carbs and something I use when doing agility on hot days. I find that the sustained help for “smaller” amounts from Glyco-Gen agree with my dogs better. However, I keep a canister in the car at all times.

(K9 Go Drink from

This is my training regimen; however, it may not work for your dog. Work with your vet and/or sports medicine expert to tailor a diet and exercise program that is perfect for your Bearded Collie.