Just like us, dogs can benefit from a stretching and strengthening program. It can build and maintain muscle mass, improve body awareness and balance, and provide a physical and mental workout.
Canine athletes definitely gain an advantage from this type of conditioning, but senior dogs also need to stay limber. Couch potatoes and bored dogs can reap rewards too, because the activity is mentally stimulating. And some of these exercises can even be tailored to puppies as part of their training and socialization.
Canine conditioning doesn’t require hiring a professional or taking a special class, although there are Certified Canine Fitness Trainers. You can provide your dog with simple conditioning exercises at home. All it takes are a few props and some motivating treats.
What to Know Before You Start
Before you begin any canine conditioning program, make sure your vet approves. For example, although senior dogs need to stay limber, a case of severe arthritis might make certain movements inappropriate. And puppies shouldn’t engage in a variety of actions, like jumping or extended balancing, until their bones have finished developing.
Although commonly called “puppy push-ups,” this exercise is a great warm-up and muscle builder for dogs of any age. Plus, it has the side benefit of honing basic obedience behaviors. A simple puppy push-up is having your dog move from a sit position to a down position then back into a sit.
To increase the difficulty, teach your dog to stand on cue, which can be done using the lure-and-reward method. Hold a treat to your sitting dog’s nose, then slowly pull forward to lure your dog into a standing position. Once your dog understands all three positions—sit, stand, and down—you can combine them into a more complex puppy push-up. Or to increase the muscle-building, have your dog go from a stand to a down and then back to a stand again without the sit in the middle.
Stretching is great for keeping your dog limber. It’s also useful for warming up before exercise and cooling down after. But how do you tell your dog to do it? One way is to teach your dog to stretch on cue. This can be done by capturing behavior your dog does naturally. As soon as you see your dog stretching, like after a nap, mark the movement with a clicker or marker word (dog training clicker), then immediately praise and reward them. Pretty soon your dog will be offering the behavior to earn a treat. At that point, you can add a verbal cue. Now you can ask your dog to stretch as part of your exercise sessions.
Another method involves the use of a target stick. You can buy a target stick or make your own by coloring one end of a dowel rod. First, teach your dog to touch the end of the stick with his or her nose. Most dogs will do this naturally when first presented with the stick because they want to smell it. As soon as your dog’s nose touches the end of the stick, mark the action with a clicker or marker word, then reward. Once your dog understands the value of touching the end of the stick, you can use the stick to lure them into various stretching positions. For example, for a neck stretch, hold the stick above your dog’s head to get a neck extension or place it on a shoulder to get a side stretch.
Walking in a figure-eight pattern is a great way to stretch your dog’s back and improve spinal flexibility. All you need are two props—cones, garbage cans, or even food tins. Simply place the two objects several feet apart and lead your dog around and through them by luring with a treat. To tighten the turn and therefore the stretch, move the objects closer together. You can even have your dog weave between your legs as you stand with your feet apart.
Teaching your dog to balance on various surfaces helps build muscle and increase body awareness. Start with a steady surface and simply teach your dog to place all four paws on it. A good starter prop would be an upside-down shallow plastic storage bin. The goal isn’t height but to get your dog to stand on the object. Once your dog understands the game, you can introduce the element of balance.
Choose objects that are safe but will require some core work on your dog’s part. For example, large sofa cushions will work for large dogs and smaller pillows for smaller dogs. You can even use an inflatable canine exercise disc. As long as the surface is a bit unsteady underfoot, your dog will have to work to stand on top. As your pup gains confidence, you can even encourage balancing with the two front paws on one object and the two back paws on another.
Another way to build strength and body awareness is with a wobble board. You can make your own by attaching a tennis ball underneath a square of plywood. To stay standing on the board, your dog must maintain balance while the board moves underfoot. Start by holding the board still until your dog gains confidence. As your dog improves, slowly begin to loosen your grip and allow for more movement.
Step Stool Stroll
Another great body awareness exercise is the step stool stroll. The idea is for your dog to walk around a step stool with their front paws on the stool and back paws on the ground. Although it may sound easy to you, dogs generally lack rear end awareness—where their front paws go, their back paws follow. This exercise really gets your dog thinking about what each paw is doing. If you have a small dog, try using a large book that has been duct-taped closed. For large dogs, an upside-down storage bin can do the trick.
Start by teaching your dog to place only the front paws on the prop. Once your dog is comfortable, encourage movement to either side while the front paws stay elevated. You can do this by luring your dog with a treat. Or you can shape the behavior by capturing any back paw movement and slowly building to a 360-degree turn around the stool.