The 5 pieces of the canine fitness puzzle.

dog puzzle pieces

If you are new to the concept of fitness training for your dog I’m here to help you understand from the ground up how canine fitness can help your dog no matter their age, their daily activity, and whether they are a working, sport, or a loving pet. First in this blog post we’ll just review the five pieces to a canine fitness plan. .

“Movement is life”! And when we stop moving that’s when dis-ease has an invitation to take a hold. So lets get moving.

Why is fitness for your dog important?

In the same ways that exercise is good for your body and overall health, your dogs also will benefit from a simple, at-home, routine that can serve a lot of goals. A goal to improve performance for a sport, a goal to stay a healthy weight, or a goal to maintain strength and mobility into the senior years.

No matter what your “why” is to start a healthy routine with your dog, I promise you’ll have fun.

Besides the specific goals you might have for your dog’s fitness, there are wonderful extra perks of having an active life with your dog. Focusing on your dog’s physical health and fitness could help reduce the chances of injury for the pet dog during a game of fetch, help the working dog have a long healthy career, develop a confident young puppy because they have been exposed to different textures and surfaces, and help the senior dog maintain strength and mobility late into their golden years.

More than just physical benefits, fitness training with your dog will support and improve your relationship with your dog because they will WANT to train and interact with you, improve the way the two of you communicate and provide mental challenges that will keep them wanting more. Last but definitely not least, my favorite benefit of all times is building confidence in the less assertive pup.

Sounds great right!

Let’s jump in, not literately but figuratively of course, and discuss the 5 key elements that will make up that complete fitness plan.

Strength

Strength training is the most obvious element of a canine fitness program. Exercises focused on building strength will target the large muscle groups of the body. These large muscle groups support and protect the skeleton, smaller joints, and organ systems.

Generally, strength exercises consist of shifting the dog’s weight to the appropriate limb or limbs in order to engage the target muscle group and sometimes use controlled, isolated movements to flex, extend, abduct, or adduct the muscle groups.

Once you start a fitness program with your dog, initial strengthening occurs by increased recruitment of more muscle fibers to achieve the exercise. For dogs new to exercise, this occurs within 2 weeks of beginning a program. After that 2 week period, enlargement of the muscle fibers involves regularly scheduled resistance training over time. Not just a couple of weeks, but for months. But this isn’t as hard as it sounds.

Favorite Exercise for Strength

Pop Up to Nose Touch: Rear limb stabilization and core strength

Starting with your dog in a square sit, no wobbling. If your dog can not maintain a square sit without wobbling or slouching to one side then we need to work on that first. Ask or cue your dog for a nose touch slightly above their head so they have to reach up only raising the front limbs off the ground and extending the spine.

We don’t want the dog “resting” at the apex of the nose touch similar to a sit pretty. This might happen at first if your dog has a long history of “sitting pretty”. Encourage them to reach a little forward and just touch the nose to your hand. Reward comes when they are back in the sit position.

Balance

Balance exercises, in contrast, strengthen the smaller muscle groups surrounding the joints. This helps with stability and protection of the joints during normal or even extensive physical activity.

Have you ever noticed as you get older that it feels like you have lost your sense of balance? It is just like the old adage, “use it or lose it”.

The nervous system needs to be trained to help you find balance as you introduce new more difficult challenges. Would you start off by trying to cross the Grand Canyon walking over a tight rope? Heck no! You might start by practicing to cross a 2 x 4 that is sitting on the ground.

Same with your dog. Start slow! First teach them to stand still with no foot movement on the floor, no balance equipment. Trust me, this might be harder than it sounds. Many dogs propel themselves through life because it’s easier and they avoid possibly using certain muscle groups. Slowing or stopping that dog will improve their fitness level.

Favorite Exercise for Balance

Plank stand- Bow – Plank stand

The starting position of the plank stands is where the rear foot position is slightly behind the hips and the front feet are positioned slightly in front of the shoulders. This exercise can be lured by bring a treat down and back between your dogs front legs. Keep the lure close to your dogs chest as you lower it. That will the head to tuck down and in and cause a break at the elbow joint. You can reward while still in the bow position.

Then slowly draw your dog head forward and up while your dog returns to the standing plank position. Try and avoid drawing them too forward causing them to come out of plant position or bearing too much weight forward.

My favorite way to teach a cue for the bow is to capture the behavior. Most dogs after getting up from a long period of laying down will do a nice stretch of the front limbs. This method requires you to be observant and patient so you can anticipate when they naturally do the behavior. When they go to stretch as that natural routine “mark” and reward. Do this a couple of times and you are on your way to capturing a behavior and putting it on cue.

Cardio

We won’t forget the cardiovascular system health in our complete canine fitness program. The heart, lungs, and circulatory system supply all the organs, muscles, and brain with oxygenated blood as well as remove toxins.

Aerobic exercise is less stressful for the joints, muscles, and heart. A real bonus is that it can improve mood and help with cognitive function. Start slow and take your time to build a good aerobic base before moving on to more difficult interval training.

Aerobic exercise for your dog is not just throwing the ball until your dog is exhausted. Aerobic exercise should be performed at a comfortable, easy pace for both of you.

For humans the “talk test” is often performed to make sure your pace is appropriate for your aerobic level of fitness. You should be able to hold a conversation without gasping for breath during human aerobic exercise. You’re dog however can’t talk so it is important you understand the signs of stress, fatigue or changes in form so that your dog is not putting forth more than a moderate level of exertion.

Those signs of moderate exertion include increased respiration where their mouth is open wide, the tongue is outside the mouth, breathing has become noisier, and your dog might start to fall back or decrease from their original speed. When you start to see these signs it is time to slow down and start your cool down.

Cardio exercises (start at low intensity)

  • Continuous walk or hike (without sniffing)
  • trotting or jogging
  • Swimming
  • Walking in water or underwater treadmill

“Listen to your dog”! My Chase is not a high velocity dog and does not speed his way through life. We tried scootering and bikejoring because I thought they might be fun for cardio exercise but Chase did not enjoy them. If he wasn’t having fun, neither was I.

Exercise should still bring joy to your dog so make sure that you choose the right activity. My Chase loves swimming for his cardio exercise. We also have a Dog Tread treadmill to keep up with his cardio workouts when the weather is not cooperative.

Flexibility

We don’t want just want strong short muscles because that will surely lead to injury. Exercises that maintain or increase flexibility help lengthen and elasticize the muscle fibers. Optimally lengthened muscles are able to contract with more force and move the joint through a full range of normal motion. Proper flexibility is an important element to reduce the risk of injury and improve performance.

Favorite Exercises for Flexibility

Figure Eights around cones

Mental

Last, but certainly not the least important fitness element, is challenging your dog’s mental fitness. In the beginning, this is easy. The fitness foundation exercises themselves will be new for your dog and provide plenty of mental training challenges. Remember these foundations are pinnacle in order to progress into a more physically demanding program.

Mental challenges do not only have to be in the form of fitness skills but can be puzzle solving and trick training. No matter what you choose for mental exercise, it will help curb boredom and anxiety that could lead to destructive behavior. I think you will be surprised how tired your dog will be when they start thinking, solving problems and learning new skills.

Any and all training fits in the mental fitness category.

Before you and your dog get moving

A few simple Do’s and Don’ts

  • Do have your dog examined thoroughly by your veterinarian and discuss if your dogs is healthy enough to start a fitness plan or new sport. Special considerations may be needed for dogs with physical disabilities but those dogs can and should still have fitness training in their life.
  • Don’t rush into doing difficult, fancy exercises. A progressive plan is important in order to prevent injury.
  • Do practice safety at all times. Using a properly fitted harness that allows a free range of limb motion to assist your dog in finding balance can really come in handy if you over face your dog’s abilities.
  • Do keep records (written and video) of your fitness plan and how your dog is progressing
  • Do rest your dog! Muscle fibers actually grow bigger and stronger during a period of rest
  • Don’t DIY. Incorporating a fitness plan into your dogs life does not have to be complicated. But working with a trained canine fitness coach can reduce your risk of harming your dog.

Working with a Canine Fitness Coach

Yes, I know there is a lot of free information on the internet but you don’t want to waste your time and potentially your dogs well-being by guessing what exercises are appropriate for your dog. When you work with a certified fitness coach you’ll get clarity on your pup’s lifestyle, together you will access their current fitness level, and develop a program specific for the goals you have for your dog.

Working with me or any other canine fitness coach you’ll be able to:

  • Properly evaluate your dog’s physical condition and establish their baseline fitness level.
  • Provide one on one personalized coaching specific to your dog’s age, breed, and goals
  • Help you understand the goal of each exercise and the proper form you are working to achieve.
  • Assist you with any training challenges you are having.
  • Develops a complete program containing the 5 pieces of the canine fitness puzzle to support your dogs mind and body

Ready to start fundamental skills?

So there you have it, now you know the 5 elements to a canine fitness program, their benefits, and provided some examples we can move on to training the fundamental or foundation movements

I am so excited to share I’ll be posting a series of articles to get you started with the 15 fundamental skills or movements for canine fitness. These are the same skills I teach in my class to kick start beginning students in their fitness journey. Most of them you’ve probably heard of but maybe didn’t understand how we can use them in fitness. Or maybe you didn’t know there are different mechanics to achieving a sit. And they matter.

Just like any human sport or fitness program, it is key to establish a solid foundation so you and your dog can progress to more difficult physical challenges safely and successfully. The foundations when done correctly will engage targeted muscles groups, stronger better movement patters or propricetpion. We’ll use these fundamental skills over and over to create fun, safe, and unique exercise combinations that provide strength, flexibility, balance, and mental challenges.



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