December 28, 2015 – by Kris Butler
My dogs run agility hard, and agility can be hard on dogs. I’ve learned to look first for physical causes when a dog knocks bars or avoids obstacles, and I’ve become more proactive about our dogs’ maintenance. An ounce of prevention with the chiropractor, for example, is worth pounds of “cure.”
As I evolved, I began researching processes that might take me beyond merely maintaining our canine athletes, toward actually enhancing their physical functioning. I felt compelled to explore ways in which I might empower my dogs to better tolerate the unnatural physical demands our game places on them. In May 2015, I attended a three-day course in Colorado and, afterward, completed a complicated process which resulted in certification as a FitPaws® Master Trainer. Since then I enrolled in two online courses which focused on exercises targeting injury prevention for canine athletes, taught by esteemed gurus of the canine fitness field. I’ve taken the first few steps in what I hope will be a long and productive journey.
A blossoming, profitable, canine fitness industry currently receives a lot of attention. Frankly, I see a lot of theater in the marketing of canine fitness. The atmosphere can feel circus-esque as instructors’ highly skilled dogs perform advanced level exercise/tricks for spectators within sometimes complex setups of brightly colored inflated equipment. Canine exercise equipment is useful and will be discussed. However, as with all tools, it’s not so much what you have as how well you use what you have that gets you where you want to be. If people are to obtain the best (not necessarily the most) tools, it’s important to first determine what those tools are needed for.
An agility handler I’ve always enjoyed talking to once told me she’d taken her dog to a canine rehabilitation center in her area to spend time on their underwater treadmill. “What’s wrong?” I asked, assuming. She seemed surprised by the question. “Nothing is wrong. We use the underwater treadmill every week for exercise. It’s wonderful for conditioning.” Another handler standing with us nodded in agreement.
So, accepting (and understanding) a most common misconception, let’s first make this important distinction: Canine fitness/conditioning is NOT canine rehabilitation. Rehabilitation is the restoration of function. Exercises designed for rehabilitation generally follow injury or surgical operation. Underwater treadmills do not even require dogs to propel themselves forward and move dogs only across one plane of motion. This might be fine for restoring function but fitness conditioning is different.
The purpose of conditioning is the enhancement of function toward a goal of functional athletic performance. Canine sports like agility, fly ball, and freestyle disc routines require dogs to perform (not just run, but perform) full range of motion movements while driving through obstacles. Canine athletes’ conditioning programs must address the “function” necessary to safely participate in their handlers’ sports of choice.
Day-to-day functioning goals are much different from goals that relate to functioning in competitive sporting events. Thus, the exercise program developed to condition a healthy canine athlete must be different from that of a rehabbing patient. Exercise programs for canine athletes should begin with slow and controlled movements to maintain correct form and properly engage supportive muscles, but there must be progression and control to enhance functional performance. Progression requires increased demands on stamina and strength. Progression results from any of the following: increased repetitions or sets, increased tempo, increase in duration (time) static positions are held, and/or use of increasingly difficult equipment. To be effective, progression must include a dog’s continued control of form.
During sporting events, canine athletes use their full range of motion and move along multiple planes of direction. To develop exercises that increase range of motion and provide greater stability, it’s necessary to consider there ARE three planes of motion and that exercises must address muscles that control and stabilize movements across each.
Median Plane – Movements across this plane are generally forward or backward. Most of a dog’s natural movement occurs across this plane. Examples include walking, running, backing, swimming, jumping vertically, downs, sit, and stand.
Consider, however, that neither we humans nor our dogs move only forward or backward, most especially in unpredictable situations when we are driving our bodies at maximum capacity. Each of the three planes can be referred to using different names; but the words are not as important as understanding the different ways in which we ask our dogs to use their muscles to “move.” Many of the extreme movements that are common within the competitions into which we take our dogs occur infrequently within exercise-related activities like hiking or biking.
Dorsal or Frontal Plane – Think about limbs moving away from midline (abduction) and back toward midline (adduction). Whether practiced or spontaneous, examples of canine athletes’ movement across this plane include side stepping, pivoting, and agility weaving.
Transverse Plane – Think about twisting and rotating motions involving the spine. People probably move across this plane more often than our dogs do on an intentional basis.For an under-exercised dog, the introduction to the transverse plane might not occur until the agility dog twists while falling from a dogwalk or twists in midair after receiving a late cue while going over a jump.
I believe every canine athlete should be encouraged to develop the following functional elements of performance to the highest degree possible:
Proprioception – the understanding of how an individual’s body is positioned, how the body is moving, and awareness of what the limbs are doing. Proprioception alerts individuals through nerve signals in the joints, ligaments, tendons and muscles. Improved body awareness improves athletic performance and reduces risk of injury.
Balance—the ability to maintain a body’s position against gravity. Balance must be challenged to improve. The canine athlete must maintain balance while performing difficult physical tasks at high speed.
Strength and flexibility – the ability of muscles to move a body with power, allowing full range of motion, without damage. I intentionally listed these two elements together. Both are necessary, yet neither is beneficial to the athlete without the other.
Proprioception, balance, strength and flexibility relate to movement. The muscles of movement can most simply be referred to as either primary movers or supporters. The bigger bulky muscles are the ones you see as a dog moves. Running and jumping activities build these bulky prime movers. These are the muscles people tend to be most aware of. Supporting muscles are hidden away and often overlooked in the scheme of canine fitness.
Support muscles keep an individual together. Support muscles surround every joint and hold the body in position during and after an action has occurred. Even before focusing on the primary movers handlers should ensure their dogs’ fitness programs include strengthening exercises for supportive muscles to prevent injury and protect joints. In particular, exercise programs should address core muscles – those muscles that stabilize the trunk, spine, and pelvis.
Consider that when a dog flies over a jump or leaps in the air to catch a ball or disc, his prime movers will have launched him but his supportive muscles will (hopefully) hold him together when he lands.
One way supporting muscles can be strengthened is through the correct use of unstable surfaces. Inflated exercise equipment provides such surfaces wonderfully. I consider the ways in which dogs can learn to use and develop their supportive muscles to be the strongest benefit this kind of equipment offers canine athletes. It’s important, however, that each dog is worked within the limits of his strength, encouraged to maintain correct form and engage his core while balancing on equipment. Struggling to maintain balance through large movements or assuming postures that are not natural will engage primary muscles instead of supportive muscles.
It’s not enough for the athlete to merely stand on unstable surfaces. Most dogs will eventually achieve balance on almost any commercial stability equipment. Because we are training to achieve maximum athletic function, we must also consider progression and strive to teach our dogs to perform increasingly more complex tasks while maintaining correct form on the equipment.
Like the sport of agility, there is much more to the art and science of canine fitness than just “having fun on the equipment.” My purpose for researching and developing canine fitness exercise programs is to strengthen my dogs against the extremes of their own nature, triggered by their participation with me in a sport that continues to place increasingly difficult physical demands on them. I believe dedicated attention is required for those supportive canine muscles that are not called upon regularly to equip them to “take hold” when (not if) needs arise during sporting events. It doesn’t require a gym full of fancy commercial equipment. A couple pieces of the right equipment and a dedicated, knowledgeable handler will be just about perfect. Might that person be you?
Kris Butler currently offers private fitness coaching only in collaboration with dogs’ veterinary or chiropractic doctors. She offers presentations to groups interested in fitness training for canine athletes. Kris’s contact information is on her website.
Refs and sources of inspiration for this article:
- FitPaws Master Trainer course and course materials.
- Daisy Peel Online Agility Courses, Injury Prevention with Bobbie Lyons
- Online Get In Shape! Canine Fitness Courses, Illiopsoas Strengthening with Leslie Eide DVM CCRT
- Martial ARFS blog
- More photos & video of Lincoln and Rave On at their website.