When people think of muscle building and strength exercises for dogs they picture the big Pitbull or Rotti conditioning for protection sports or protection work or even the skinny dog needing to gain weight. However, muscle conditioning exercise has benefits for all dogs and is also beneficial in the rehabilitation of dogs recovering from injury or suffering degenerative issues such as hip dysplasia or spine related problems. See “Exercising a dog with hip dysplasia” for more on this. It is important that if using strength and muscle training for the latter that it is done in consultation with a vet or qualified therapist.
This type of exercise is also excellent for helping to tire a high energy dog “How to tire a high energy hyper dog”.
Benefits of muscle building and strength exercise for dogs
One of the major benefits of incorporating muscle building and strengthening activities into your dog’s daily exercise is that it assists to prevent injury. This is achieved by building muscle to support and give stability to the joints and tendons and increase bone density.
For aging dogs that tend to suffer from muscle wastage that leads to arthritis, it aids to slow down and even reverse age-related weakness “Exercising for an Arthritic dog”.
From a fitness point of view, strengthening exercises increase the cardiovascular system and reduces fat preventing obesity. For overall health, it improves gastrointestinal regularity, strengthens the immune system, and improves sleeping and eating patterns.
The psychological benefits to your dog are that it provides mental stimulation and enrichment and prevents behavior issues like jumping up, digging, chewing, and nuisance barking “Mental enrichment and Mental Stimulation“. It can even help dogs that are timid or anxious to build their confidence. Muscle building and strengthening is also an important part of conditioning and training for dogs that compete in dog sports such as agility.
Rest, Recovery and Diet
In addition to performing the physical exercises required to build and strengthen muscle, there are two more crucial components 1) Rest and recovery, and 2) quality nutrition.
It is important to not overwork your dog and slowly increase the resistance or activity allowing the opportunity for them to recover fully between exercise sessions.
Diet is also of utmost importance, especially quality proteins. Protein has the role of repairing muscle and other tissue in addition to building lean muscle. It is needed to form new skin cells and grow a healthy coat. It also assists in creating body chemicals such as hormones and enzymes needed for normal function and to provide energy and maintain a strong immune system.
Proteins are made up of amino acids. There are 22 essential amino acids that make up your dog’s protein needs. Your dog is able to manufacture half of these but the remaining amino acids must come from diet. Deficiencies of any of the essential amino acids can lead to a weakened immune system. This can result in low energy, poor skin, and coat condition, and your dog may be slow to heal from injury or wounds.
Ideally, you want to feed proteins that are of a high, biologically-appropriate type which simply means that they are able to digest and absorb the necessary nutrients easily. Poultry, such as chicken, is a good example of this.
Some people will supplement their dog’s protein needs with whey protein, which is commonly used by human bodybuilders, but this is not recommended. Whey protein is sourced from dairy product and dogs are generally lactose intolerant and it has an undesirable effect on their digestive system. There are protein supplements available that have been specially formulated for dogs.
Muscle and strength building exercises
Here is a list of some suggested exercises and activities that will build muscle and develop strength for your dog. Some are focused on developing particular muscles or muscle groups such as the hind legs. How often do you see a dog that is thick through the chest and shoulders and has a skinny rear end? This causes an imbalance and often leads to back-related problems.
Others are more of a compound exercise and will develop overall strength, power, and core stability. With all exercises, start with a low number of repetitions and resistance - increase over time as your dog becomes more conditioned to the activity. It is very important to do a warm-up with your dog before starting these exercises.
A warm-up can consist of five or so minutes of walking, starting slowly and then increasing speed after a few minutes, or maybe a 5-minute game of fetch or similar. This will increase the heart rate and get the blood flowing to the muscles to help prevent injury.
This is probably one of the best all-around exercises you can give your dog. A 10-minute swim is equivalent to an hour of walking.
In addition, it provides resistance to the whole body especially the front end, which doesn’t get as much work from just walking. As your dog’s body is supported by the water, it takes the weight off of their joints and bones and is low-impact, making it suitable for older dogs and dogs with an injury.
For more on swimming exercise for dogs see here.
Walking or running on sand or shallow water.
Walking your dog on sand or in knee-high water provides another type of resistance not achieved by normal walking and again is a low-impact activity. As with swimming, just 10 minutes of this is more than sufficient to give your dog a good workout. Running uphill also provides added resistance and is great for building strength in the hind legs.
Weight pulling is an actual dog sport but you can incorporate this type of exercise into your dog’s muscle building and strength program. The most important thing is that you use a proper weight pulling harness. These are designed to distribute the weight evenly over your dog’s body.
Start with a light amount of weight and have your dog drag the weight 30 to 60 feet. Give them a rest for 2 minutes and repeat. As with conditioning your dog to run, start off easy and gradually increase the amount of weight and number of repetitions over time.
Other options for pulling-type conditioning include pulling a person on skates or a skateboard, pulling a sled or scooter, and you can even get a parachute that attaches to a weight vest.
Walking up and down stairs is a good exercise in that it provides two complementary actions. Going up the stairs makes them use their muscles to propel forward. Coming down the stairs requires balance and controlled core stability. Stair climbing as an exercise may not be suitable for all dogs especially if they have any back-related problems or a breed that is prone to back issues such as a Dachshund.
For more on stair exercise for dogs see here.
Jumping on to a bench and off
Have your dog jump up on to a park bench or similar platform and them jump off again. This is great for using their power to jump up and use their control and agility to dismount. Jumping off the bench is a little more high impact than some of the other exercises so it would not be suitable for a dog with an injury, especially one that relates to the front legs.
Tug of war
A classic dog game and one that is loved by most dogs. Make them use their strength to crouch and pull back. Many dog trainers are opposed to this game as they feel it encourages dominant behavior. As long as your dog takes and releases the tug toy on command and you control the game this is not an issue.
Play a game of fetch using an object with some weight relative to your dog’s size. You could use a small tire from a wheelbarrow, or a plastic dumbbell or even a water bottle filled with water or sand. A litre of water weighs 1kg (2.2 lbs).
This is similar to human squats. Have your dog sit and then stand. You can use treats to make this easier. If they don’t stand when you say just step back and offer the treat. After a week or two, you can increase the resistance of the exercise by putting a backpack on your dog and add weight, but not more than 10% of their body weight.
Have your dog walk backward for a short distance. This focuses on strengthening the hip extensor muscle. Walking backward is not a natural movement for dogs so to teach this walk them into a narrow enclosed area and have them back out.
Attach light weights to your dog’s ankles. You can use human wrist weights or make something yourself with some socks and sand for weight. Walk for a short amount of time like 5 minutes to 10 minutes.
A spring pole is simply a spring connected to a rope that hangs from a tree branch or beam with a lure or toy attached to the end. This allows your dog to play tug of war with him or herself even if you are not there. Popular with a lot of dogs and particularly terrier type breeds that love a good game of tug of war.
A flirt pole is simply a stick with a rope attached with a lure or toy at the end of the rope. It is like a giant cat tickler toy. You just drag the toy around in a circle or in various directions along the ground and your dog chases it. The flirt pole will tire out your dog quickly and require minimun effort from you. For a full guide to flirt pole exercise for dogs see here.
Stability balls are a very popular piece of exercise equipment for dogs. There are quite a few different types but they work by having your dog stand of the apparatus using their muscles to stay balanced and stable. These are great for strengthening all the muscles groups and in particular the core. At first, you may need to support your dog holding them in place and as they get more practice and develop the necessary strength you can move away making the exercise harder for them.
These exercises are suggestions that you can pick and choose from or modify. Select a couple to use on a daily basis and introduce them slowly. Start with a short session or a low number of repetitions and over time as your dog develops strength and becomes more conditioned increase the resistance. The key is to be consistent and not just do one big session and then not do anything for a week or two. This way your dog will gain strength and condition over time while minimizing the risk of injury. Don’t force or punish your dog for not wanting to do some of the exercises and you will soon figure out which ones are their favorites.
Muscle building and strength conditioning exercises are beneficial for all dogs. This includes older dogs that may be showing muscle wasting, dogs that compete in dog-related sports for conditioning training. They are also ideal for your pet to aid with overall good health, strengthening the immune system, and improved conditioning. Don’t forget that quality diet including good levels of protein for muscle growth and repair is important as well as the rest and recovery needed for the muscles to grow.
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