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Cool coats and sporting dogs

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Firstly, let me start by saying that I am all for the appropriate use of cool coats. I know some dogs that feel the heat really benefit from them, in particular a lot of black dogs that otherwise just seem to absorb heat in their coats. And on days like today where temperatures are set to hit 30 degrees, I know some people that are having to use them even in the house to give their dogs a little relief.

I’ve not personally used the coats as my dogs seem to cope fine with heat and aren’t big fans of coats. So my first direct experience of them was at a show offering free muscular health checks. On palpating some of the dogs where their coats had just been taken off, I was surprised by the very noticeable difference in temperature between the body area that had been covered, and the parts exposed to the sun, with the covered areas feeling not just cooler but actually cold in some cases. And the muscles felt very different, much tighter than I would have expected to feel given how these dogs were feeling across the rest of their bodies. And this was consistent in every dog I checked that had been wearing a coat.

Given that these are now widely used at agility shows (and I imagine the same applies to flyball and obedience), I started to consider what impact might they be having on our sporting dogs.

It’s important to warm our dogs up before they run to help prevent injury. A good warm up gradually raises the heart rate and respiratory rate, increasing blood flow which then increases the rate that oxygen and nutrients are delivered to the muscles. The muscles become looser and more supple, leaving them prepared for more strenuous activity. Without this we may find our dogs fatigue quicker, particularly if they have back to back runs as sometimes happens, as the muscles don’t have enough oxygen and nutrients flowing to them, leading to a quicker build up of lactic acid. We may also find out dogs are more likely to suffer with DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) the following day and may be more likely to suffer from strains and form trigger points.

A cool down is equally important. The heart rate and respiratory rate need to be gradually reduced, so that enough oxygen and nutrients continue to flow to the muscles to remove lactic acid build up and prevent DOMS.

So how might cool coats effect your dogs’ warm up and cool down? Cool temperatures cause the blood vessels to constrict, reducing blood flow to the area which although great for keeping the core temperature down, means that oxygen and nutrients can’t flow as freely to the affected areas. And cool temperatures generally mean shorter, tighter muscles. Increased muscle tension is more likely to lead to muscular strains as the fibres will overstretch and tear during increased activity. And cooling the muscles too quickly following exercise reduces the ability of the body to remove lactic acid, leading to a stiff and sore dog the following day.

The other thing to consider is that if a cool coat is placed on to an already hot dog it will trap heat in, making it harder for your dog to regulate their temperature and causing potential overheating. These coats are designed to be put on dogs to prevent overheating, not to cool them down if they are already too hot.

So how can you best warm up and cool down your dog? Cool coats should be removed before the warm up begins, around 10-15 minutes before their run. And they shouldn’t be replaced again until your dog is fully cooled down, meaning they’ve gone through a cool down routine, had a drink, and if necessary had their bellies splashed with water to bring their temperature down. After this, a cool coat can be a great addition to all the other precautions we take to keep our dogs cool at a show when the have a break between runs.

And if you are concerned that your dog will overheat if they don’t have their cool coat on continuously unless they are running, in all honesty it’s probably too hot to run them. Each dog has a different heat tolerance so it’s up to you to know your dog, what’s fine for one is unbearable for another. If you couldn’t consider taking your dog's cool coat off for 20 minutes then you’re probably better off giving the show a miss and staying at home. After all, we’re in England, it’s only going to be another week or so before we’ll be complaining that it’s raining again!