Whether your dog is a couch potato or a highly conditioned canine athlete, one thing is for certain: your dog has athleticism that would put most serious human athletes to shame. What are the traits that contribute to an athletic dog’s prowess? Additionally, what sets apart a dog that prefers to lounge over an Agility champion? Here, the factors that contribute to a dog’s athleticism as well as how as you, the owner, can get the most out of your dog’s genetics will be discussed.

Factors that Contribute to Canine Athleticism

There are two main factors that contribute to a dog’s athletic ability.

These are:

High VO2 max

The term VO2 max refers to maximum oxygen uptake during exercise. While this term is often most commonly heard among elite long-distance runners, all mammals have a VO2 max.

Whether sedentary or active, dogs have a naturally higher VO2 max than humans. Overall, the higher the VO2 max the greater the mammal’s aerobic endurance and energy.

Among canine athletes, the top dogs consume and utilize oxygen at a greater rate than their counterparts. Oxygen consumption is important because it is the main driving force for muscular and cellular processes during exercise.

Metabolic Adaptations

Another difference between humans and dogs relating to athletic performance is metabolic adaptation. Unlike humans, who use carbohydrates as their primary fuel source, dogs have the superior ability to efficiently convert fat into usable energy.

The reason this adaptation is significant is because glycogen (aka carbohydrate) storage in muscles and the liver is limited, equating to approximately 2 – 3 hours of moderate exercise.

Once these carbohydrate stores have been depleted, humans “hit the wall” during aerobic exercise (for instance, mile 20 of a marathon). At high intensities, carbohydrate stores are used up even more quickly, resulting in muscle soreness and cramping.

On the other hand, fat is converted more slowly (and, for dogs, efficiently) into energy. While carbohydrate storage is limited, mammals have a more abundant supply of fat. Indeed, dogs have approximately 50 times the amount of usable fat energy in muscles relative to glycogen. A drawback to fat metabolism is a high oxygen cost; however, a dog’s naturally higher VO2 max overcomes this limitation.

Therefore, since dogs utilize fat more readily than humans, their endurance and aerobic capacity are far greater.

How to Work with a Dog’s Unique Biology

A dog’s biology is only one piece of the puzzle. While their genetics give them the tools to be superior athletes, the way they are cared for determines whether their full potential is realized.

The two factors that set apart otherwise genetically similar dogs include:


Since fat metabolism is the key to a dog’s superior endurance and aerobic capacity, training should focus on these areas. Conditioning should comprise strategies that improve a dog’s ability to burn fat for fuel. Intense, carbohydrate-depleting sessions should be kept to a
minimum, especially before competition, to save these glycogen stores for when they are most important. By improving a dog’s fat metabolism, his or her metabolic capacity will improve which in turn will help the dog generate energy more efficiently.


To support a dog’s ideal training and conditioning, proper nutrition is important. Canine athletes should be fed a high-quality, balanced diet that contains all the necessary micro- and macronutrients. For optimal performance, food for athletic canines should be high in easily digestible fat and protein and low in carbohydrates. By feeding a food with these ratios, you can metabolically condition your dog to more efficiently use fat for energy.

This formulation should be fed year-round for best results. During periods of training and conditioning, dogs should be fed a minimum of 10 – 12 hours prior to exercise. Because of the requirements needed for field training and hunting, Bull Valley Retrievers feeds their adult dogs in the evening after all exercise has been completed. This allows food to be processed and dogs to be ready to work the next day. Younger dogs are continued to be fed multiple time a day to allow for proper development.

Joe Scarpy – Owner/Trainer