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Does your dog have a fitness routine? When I started training in dog agility in the 1990s most competitors didn’t know very much about canine sports medicine. It wasn’t uncommon to take dogs directly from being crated at a show to quickly go run a full course—no warm-up whatsoever. Thankfully, over the last two decades, dog sports and our knowledge of canine fitness have evolved dramatically. Now, there is an increased awareness of the importance of conditioning, how core strength works, and the development of canine fitness routines to help prevent injuries.
Why Improve Dog Core Strength?
A new 2022 study from Washington State University shows that core strength training and conditioning may help dogs, especially canine athletes avoid knee injuries. The study looked at over 1,200 dogs involved in Agility, and of these dogs, 260 of these dogs had sustained a torn ligament injury. Specifically, the study was looking at risk factors for cranial cruciate ligament (CCL) ruptures, a common knee injury that athletic dogs experience.
The study also looked at dogs who play multiple sports, including Barn Hunt, Scent Work, Dock Diving, and Flyball. Dogs who competed in both Agility and Flyball were twice as likely to experience a CCL rupture, whereas Dock Diving didn’t seem to indicate an increased risk. The findings of how strength training and conditioning exercises could impact the likelihood of athletic dogs developing CCL ruptures were particularly interesting. The study researchers noted that “balance exercises, wobble boards, anything that improves the core strength of the dog seemed to lower the odds of a ligament tear.”
These are the sorts of exercises that AKC Fit Dog Instructors and other dog trainers are incorporating into training for all dogs—not just the ones who are competing in Agility. As the owner of a Newfoundland, who three years ago had CCL tears and had subsequent reconstructive surgery and physical therapy, which enabled her to return to participation in all the sports and activities she loves, I was especially interested in the results of this study.
Anecdotal my dog’s surgeon and physical therapist routinely remarked that our commitment to core strength training and her overall level of fitness was what allowed her to make a fast and complete recovery and return to sports training. With approval from her rehabilitation team, she made her return to the Rally ring just 13 weeks after her bilateral CCL surgery.
Prepping For a New Exercise Routine
Before introducing any kind of new conditioning or exercise routine to your dog, it’s important to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Your dog’s veterinarian will be able to examine your dog and let you know about any concerns for your dog based on their age or any underlying health conditions. For example, puppies and young adult dogs who have not finished growing should not do any high-impact exercises like jumping and should avoid some conditioning exercises because their joints are still developing. Dogs with arthritis may also have limitations on what exercise they should do.
If you are competing at high levels of a sport, have a dog who has any orthopedic challenges, or have an aging dog, it can even be helpful to seek out the support of a veterinary physical therapist. Veterinary physical therapists can provide in-clinic treatments such as laser therapy, underwater treadmill, and other supports to improve a dog’s fitness and core strength. After assessing your dog clinically, they will provide you with a specialized exercise as well as conditioning and stretching routines to do at home.
Developing a Conditioning Routine
Although many of us dread getting on the treadmill or heading to the gym, for our dogs, exercise is usually seen as just another fun activity. You can incorporate any fitness exercises into any of the play and training you already do with your dog. Unless you have been specifically shown by a veterinary physical therapist the appropriate way to manually stretch your dog’s body, it’s important to not do so, otherwise, you could accidentally cause an injury. Instead, it’s best to focus on skills and behaviors that allow your dog to naturally stretch without pushing their body too much.
Many kennel clubs are also beginning to offer canine fitness courses. But anytime you sign up for a sports class, ask if the instructor has training or certifications in canine conditioning, such as the AKC Fit Dog Instructor Certifications, and how they incorporate warmups into their class plans. A few easy conditioning skills that you can work on at home with your healthy dog are the following stretches:
For dog pushups, you’ll be working with your dog to go from sit to down to standing positions. This skill is also a great mental warmup for practicing obedience cues, which are useful for daily life as well as for dogs who are training in sports like Obedience and Rally.
To start, get a treat on your dog’s nose and pull the treat slowly up and back until your dog moves into a sit position, then praise and treat your dog. Next, while your dog is sitting, put another treat on your dog’s nose and pull the treat down and forward towards the ground until your dog’s body goes into the down position. Give them another praise and treat. Finally, with another treat on your dog’s nose pull the treat slowly straight up to bring your dog into the stand position, and then treat and praise your dog once more.
As your dog gets better and more comfortable, you can begin to fade out the food lure and ask your dog to move between the positions using a cue. The goal isn’t to see how fast your dog can move between positions, but rather to encourage thoughtful, intentional, and fluid movement between the positions.
As the Washington State University Study showed, balance exercises that help dogs develop stronger core strength can be extremely beneficial for all dogs, especially dogs who are active and/or participating in sports. Wobble boards, inflatable exercise disks, balancing equipment, couch pillows, and air mattress are all safe and stable objects that provide inconsistent movement under a dog’s feet.
To work on your dog’s balance, cue or lure your dog into putting their paws up onto the unstable object and treat your dog for the movement. Then coax your dog to get all four paws up onto the object. When your dog is comfortable on the unstable object, you can start to introduce other behaviors, such as sitting or spinning, while on the unstable surface.
Teaching your dog how to bow is not only a fun trick, but it is also a great back stretch. Many dogs bow naturally go into a downward dog position when they are playing, so you can “capture” the behavior by marking with a clicker and treats each time your dog naturally bows.
Alternately, you can teach your dog to bow with a treat. Get a treat on your dog’s nose and move it down and in towards your dog’s chest. As your dog follows the treat, their body will start to lower. When your dog’s elbows touch the floor praise and treat your dog. Over time, you can slowly build up the duration of time your dog holds the “bow” position, add a verbal cue, and fade out your lure.
Getting your dog to do figure 8s is a great way for your dog to get a nice stretch and doesn’t require any special supplies or equipment. Stand with your legs apart and use a treat on your dog’s nose to lure your dog around your legs in a figure 8 pattern. With more practice, you can start to phase out the lure and add a verbal cue of your choice. You can also teach your dog to do a figure 8 around objects like buckets or traffic cones.
Avoid Being Weekend Warriors
Just like you wouldn’t get up and go run a marathon, you wouldn’t want your dog to go out doing sports without warming up and proper conditioning. Avoid being “weekend warriors” with your dog, and instead, try to incorporate exercise into your dog’s daily routines. If you want to pursue sports or strenuous activities with your dog, such as hiking or running on the beach, it’s especially important for your dog to work up to that level of strenuous exercise.
Making sure your dog is getting exercise daily, and not just going hard occasionally or on the weekend, is the best way to promote healthy muscle development. This regular conditioning with an emphasis on core strength training can help prevent injuries and keep your dog active doing the things they love for longer.