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Canine Fitness and Conditioning To Optimize Performance

A fit dog will be less likely to be injured and more likely to be successful! By Marla Friedler-Cooper, MA CPDT


This article focuses on improving your dogs' abilities in performance events while keeping them fit, increasing physical strength, decreasing muscle recovery time, and raising your dogs' learning ability and focus.

First of all, I was a little hesitant to write this article since I am not a licensed rehab person.  I do not like it myself when I see articles or books discussing something medical or physical written by people who are not licensed to do so.

That being said, I have been working with a licensed physical therapist for a while now with my own dogs and we have also been doing workshops together where she addresses the physical therapy portion of the seminar and I teach the participants how to turn these exercises into fun tricks using shaping.  So although I do not have a P.T. license myself, I have worked closely with a licensed P.T. to develop this canine fitness plan.

Many people still treat their dogs as weekend warriors, much to the detriment of the dogs' physical fitness.  It is important to work on core strengthening, neuromuscular facilitation, sensory and perceptual stimulation, joint alignment, and balance control (the same things are important for human athletes as well).

In addition to working with fitness equipment, it is extremely beneficial for both fitness and mental stimulation to work on specialized "tricks."  This will maintain optimum physical and mental abilities and it's also a lot of fun.

Fitness is important for a number of reasons that will benefit the canine athlete:

*Proprioception / Rear End Awareness
*Middle flexion
*Balance
*Power from rear
*Ability to judge distance and adjust stride
*Diminished fear of motion under foot

The first order of business when conditioning a canine athlete is weight control.  Many dogs are overweight, even those who do agility.  You should be able to easily feel your dog's ribs and he should have a "waist."  If not, you may consider a diet and increased cardio-vascular exercise to burn calories.

I have found that with many of my clients I can easily get some weight off of their dogs by substituting green beans in place of some of their normal food.  I do think that weight control is the first step to fitness but please work with your veterinarian to develop your own dog's optimum weight.

The next order of business should be cardiovascular fitness.  This means walks, walking through water, and swimming.  You will take whatever level of cardio work you are doing now and then increase it by 20% every two weeks.  So, if you are working 20 minutes now, in two weeks, you can walk 24 minutes.  You should do some sort of cardio exercise with your dog at least six days a week.  This will be fun and beneficial for both of you!

Warm ups and cool downs are related to cardiovascular conditioning.  So, no crate-to-ring, which I see all too often.  You should warm your dog up with a brisk walk for about 10-15 minutes within half an hour of competition time.  Conversely, no ring-to-crate either.  You should give your dog at least a 10 minute walk to cool down before he goes back to his crate.

So, now for the exercises.  These exercises were chosen because they combine proprioception and strength building skill sets.

1. Walk backwards
2. Perch work
3. Doggy dancing
4. Tugging
5. Doggy sit ups
6. Crawling
7. Sit to stand
8. Cavalettis
9. Leaning on an incline
10. Rocking a ball or peanut

There are many articles on how to teach these exercises so I won't go into that in this article.  What you need to do is first teach these exercises and then vary them for optimum fitness. 

Once you teach these exercises on the ground, you can progress them to make them more difficult.  You might try some of them on balance discs, Bosus, wobbly boards or with a lightly weighted vest.  You might progress your walking to include some walking through sand and you can progress doggy sit ups to begging and doggy squats.

Your home conditioning program on non-agility days will be cardio and about six of the above exercises.  Your agility show and practice day routine will consist of a 15-minute leash walks and about four of the above exercises.  I often perform these exercises right near the gate as we are awaiting our turn.  So, 15-minute leash walk followed by getting close to the gate and doing a few "tricks" (which are chosen from exercises above). 

For example, a typical routine for me is 15-minute leash walk and then when we get about eight dogs before our run, we will do walking backwards, doggy dancing, begging, and sit-to-stands.  This will not only keep your dog fit but it will also focus his attention on you and get you ready for the ring.

Happy Training!

Marla Friedler-Cooper is an agility trainer and competitor, a film/tv producer and a college professor. She can be reached at creativedogs@gmail.com or through her websites: bluetangoproductions.com and southcoastdogtraining.com or through her blog: teamcreativedogs.com.

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