"In my classes students are encouraged to ALWAYS go back to basics if your dog does not have the strength to complete the exercise or does not understand the movement needed for the exercise shown." ~Bobbie Lyons
The exercises you choose for your dog should always match the dog’s level of fitness and support the movements and demands that your dog places on his body. You also have to consider that dogs don’t always do what we want, and their movements can change in a split second due to a variety of factors. Some of these factors include, but are not limited to, the demands placed on a dog’s body during performance sports such as a poorly timed or trained box turn in flyball, falling off agility equipment, being called off a committed direction, chasing/catching frisbees and other common activities in a dog’s life such as hiking, playing fetch, or playing with other dogs. Strength training helps to support those erratic movements in the life of a dog. A dog that has developed good balance, coordination and strength will handle mishaps without injury, or a decrease in severity of injury, better than a poorly conditioned dog.
Look at this from the human perspective. If I were to participate in CrossFit – I would search long and hard for a coach that really knew how to choose exercises that are NOT above my strength and abilities. This also means I need a coach to match exercises to my goals and my fitness level so that I don’t get injured. I would need a coach to pay VERY close attention to how I performed each exercise and that is truly knowledgeable about the human body and how it should move through each exercise so that I am advised by someone with a high degree of knowledge. I have heard from numerous physical therapists that CrossFit keeps them in business due to people participating in CrossFit workouts and competitions with poor form and exercise above their capabilities. This can be prevented if you do the proper research to find a qualified instructor who can keep you at your level.
Canine fitness is an essential element of to injury prevention, joint stability, balance and strength but it is important to do it right. A trained fitness coach can help you design a fitness plan specific to your dog’s level of fitness and your dog’s abilities. They can also take into consideration what your dog knows that can be used for fitness exercises and what you are willing to teach to achieve a higher level of limb awareness and strength. A trained canine fitness coach will educate the handler on the proper position and posture of the dog for each exercise as well as how the handler’s position and posture effects that of their dog. The goals should always be to challenge the dog’s balance and strength without over working muscles or upsetting the dog’s balance beyond their capabilities.
Here are some guidelines for beginning balance and strength exercises with your dog using balance equipment:
- Dogs should not be asked to complete exercise in which they cannot find balance in a few seconds
- Dogs should not be asked to complete exercises in which they do not understand the behavior or movement
- Teach the foundation behaviors on the flat
- Teach all the targeting skills so that the dog can be successful and so the communication between dog and handler is clear
- Gradually introduce balance while applying the foundation behaviors to equipment
- Go over obstacle courses to learn different surfaces and basic balance while moving (no stationary exercises)
- Complete static and active exercises in the median plane exercise (sit/stand, down/stand, bow, soft plank etc)
- Complete some exercises involving turning or dorsal plane
- Leave the transverse or twisting motions while on balance equipment to dogs that have advanced to a higher level of fitness.
When you have a dog, who is expected to perform at a high level with amazing speed and agility, the exercise must match what is expected for the sport the dog is involved in. That doesn’t mean that if the dog is a high level flyball or agility competitor, they automatically are tossed into an advanced level of fitness. EVERY dog in the world today has to earn their level of fitness by progressing through exercises and showing what they are capable of.
When exercises are presented on social media, such as YouTube or other platforms, regardess who posts the photo or video, an explanation of benefits, the level of fitness of the dog in the video and the training needed for that exercise are not always obvious or explained. Further, when those exercises are shown in slow- motion, you might be horrified by what you see. If you watched any canine sports in slow motion you may question the safety of that sport, but still it does not stop handlers from asking their dog to perform extraordinary movements, balance, speed and strength from their dog needed to compete in these types of events. These movement are going to happen and in order to decrease the chance of injury, canine fitness exercises must support these types of movements.
For example – Here are some videos showing a flyball box turn in slow-motion.
The first dog in this video bends very tightly through the spine (younger dog who started balance training early and has a shorter back) and the second dog does not bend quite as much (older dog, longer back and lower level of fitness)
The above video was taken by Engage Flyball https://engageflyball.com/
If you have never seen the sport of Flyball before – here is the World of Flyball
Here is an exercise progression of right/left turns to support the strength, balance and coordination needed for tight turns AT SPEED. For instance, a box turn in Flyball, a wrap or backside jump in agility, the snatch and grab of a dog retrieving a ball are just a few examples of movements that tights turns with increased instability will support. (Note good form and balance must be achieved at each step before advancing to the next level)
Exercise Benefits: flexes the neck and spine, increases limb awareness, improves shoulder strength and balance that will ultimately be used to support turning on a flyball box, wrapping a jump standard or a backside jump in agility just to name a few.
R/L turns on the flat
R/L turns on an incline
R/L turns on a giant disc
R/L turns and side stepping on the rockerboard over the donut holder
R/L Turns and other movements on a giant bone on the floor
R/L turns on a giant bone over 2 regular bones
In the video below, you can see the dog loses balance a bit (his right front foot slides off the bone) but the dog immediately shifts weight and moves his feet to find balance. This shows an AMAZING amount of coordination and limb awareness.
"This is what you want – you want your dog to KNOW how to find balance the moment that they feel unbalanced."
Don’t jump to advanced exercises without mastering changes in instability while building up to an advanced level of coordination, balance, strength and limb awareness. Just like in the human world, it takes a good coach, time, repetition and patience to achieve a higher level of fitness.
Author: Bobbie Lyons, CCFT, KPA CTP