Kristin Wolter, CVT, CCRA, CCFT
Dedicated fitness programs for the population of dogs who compete in various sporting activities are becoming the norm, while the idea of fitness programs for the pet dog population remains in it’s infancy. You may think of canine exercise like I used to – some sort of physical activity that has an end goal of making the dog tired. This might consist of a neighborhood leash walk, visit to the dog park, game of fetch, swim at the lake or hike in the woods. While all of these ARE forms of exercise, they don’t really complete a fitness program. Fitness programs have a starting point and an ending point. They have purpose, goals (outside of causing fatigue) and direction. They take into account the ability, structure and function of the dog and the ability of the human. A good fitness program should include strength training, cardiovascular exercise, balance, coordination exercises and flexibility work.
Muscle Group Isolation
Isolating muscle groups ensures balanced strength, function and locomotion. From Dachshunds to German Shepherds, each breed comes with various physical strengths and weaknesses. Assuring balanced strength can help improve function where it may have been previously lacking.
Without proper circulation and delivery of oxygen, soft tissues quickly fatigue and become more prone to injury. Weekend warrior types of injury are prevalent when dogs aren’t fit enough to safely navigate the activity at hand.
Maintaining core strength is important in protecting not only the spine, but the extremities and feet as well.
Flexibility is a very important factor of proper musculoskeletal function. Shortened or tight muscles restrict movement of the corresponding joint resulting in a tidal wave of other compensatory malfunctions.
Balance is often overlooked, particularly as dogs are entering their senior years. Young dogs also benefit as they are learning to use their awkward bodies.
Coordination/Ease of Movement
Proper gait (the sequence of foot fall at various speed) helps maintain proper function throughout all life stages.
Below, Sara (13 years!), works on her balance and stabilization in a Canine Fitness Class. She has been coming to classes for 3 years.
The better that a dog understands where his feet are and how exactly it is they get moved from one location to the next, the more safely he can navigate the natural world. Especially in Central Oregon where the lure of rabbits and deer can quickly command a dog’s feet to take flight.
Posture is everything. It is both functional and diagnostic. A dog that has great posture probably has very little orthopedic dysfunction, where as a dog with poor posture is either at risk for injury, or displaying a compensatory postural response.
Without a doubt, fitness training with dogs IS training. We are teaching them to think about what they are doing with their body. The benefit of this type of training is that while many of the exercises seem like really cool “tricks”, they are also physically and mentally demanding. Additionally, there are behavioral benefits such as increased social confidence and reduced social reactivity.
Hopefully this is pretty straight forward. Exercise burns calories and increases metabolism.
Minimize the Affects of Aging
As dogs age, like their human counterparts, strength, balance and coordination begin to wane. A well designed fitness program, done regularly, can minimize the decline of balance, coordination, strength and stamina.
Reduce Risk of Injury
There is a reason that human athletes participate in a dedicated, refined fitness program. Injury can be devastating to an athlete’s career. Even dogs who identify as “couch potato to weekend warrior” are athletes. During the week they are jumping onto and off of furniture, navigating stairs and slick flooring and playing with housemates. On the weekend they may be going for a 2+ hour off leash hikes, navigating rough terrain or playing hard at the dog park.
Engagement. Trust. Empathy. Compassion. Connection. Canine fitness programs are highly rewarding for everyone and most dogs LOVE to do the work!
Learning about canine fitness is a great way to really understand how dogs SHOULD be navigating the world around them. It is also a great way to understand the ins and outs of positive reinforcement dog training. Every person who has a dog under their roof will benefit, even in just learning the basic foundation exercises.
I’ve been working in canine rehabilitation for ten years and fully believe that most people who start their dog on a fitness program before any orthopedic problems arise will quite easily be able to visualize minute changes in posture or in their dog’s ability to perform an exercise. Early detection of a change in physical ability and posture can help prevent further injury.
The Last Rep
Canine fitness should be a part of every dog’s life. It is fun to do and, quite literally, can be done in less than 15 minutes per day, not including hikes, walks and other excursions. I, for one, would love to see far fewer orthopedic injuries and resulting pain and OA in our pet dog population.