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Workout Wednesdays - All Four for the Core

In this week's installment of Workout Wednesdays, Dr. Eide reviews the importance of the core in conditioning.

The past two articles have covered basic exercises for the front end and the back end. Now let's talk about the ever-important core. What is the core? A simple definition could be all the muscles in between the front end and the hind end. This would include all the muscles along the vertebral column and the abdominal muscles. But we can't forget some of the other muscles like the Latissimus Dorsi, the Rhomboids, the Trapezius and the little muscles that help with joint stability. There's so much more to it than we think. The good part is that if you are helping your dog do all the exercises properly and in good form, the core is most likely being engaged and getting stronger.

The main purpose of core muscles is stabilization during dynamic movement. When the core is weak, there is a greater chance for injury. When performing a core exercise we do not often see a lot of movement. The muscles are contracting in an isometric fashion; the joint angle and muscle length do not change when the muscle is contracted. Some of the core muscles can be strengthened concentrically and eccentrically as well. Specifically, I focus on the Iliopsoas group of muscles for my canine athlete clients. It is important to realize that any time you do any exercise the core is working, and this is even more true when you add exercise equipment that introduces instability.

The foundation of core work is all four limbs on an unstable surface. This foundation work also helps build body awareness, another important consideration in the quest for injury prevention. When shaping this behavior at first, I am not as concerned about form, I want the dog to be able to understand she has four limbs and she should be doing something with all of them. I teach the dog to both stand on equipment and place all four limbs in something like a small box. Once the dog understands placing all four limbs on something, it becomes an exercise by increasing duration. At this time, form is of utmost importance.

Two Examples of Good Form - not the neutral topline, up on paws, legs squarely underneath body

The form you want to achieve with the dog is a neutral topline, an upright stature relative to all four feet, standing with the limbs squarely underneath the body.  A neutral topline should look exactly like your dog's top line when standing on the ground. If your dog hunches her back, often the equipment you are using is too small or placed too close together. If the dog is down on her hocks, the same could be true. With any instability of form the exercise could be too difficult for your dog or there might not be enough space on the equipment for the dog to stand normally. Finally, look at the placement of your dog's limbs; if they are out to the side (wide based stance), the dog is trying to make balancing easier and not engaging the core as much as possible, it is likely the piece of equipment you have chosen for your core work is too difficult.

Examples of Bad Form - wide based stance with the hind legs on the bones, roached top line and weight shifted to the hind legs on the peanut.

While starting your core work by teaching the dog to stand on unstable equipment in proper form, also teach your dog to independently raise each limb while standing on a stable surface. This will engage the core, as the dog learns how to weight shift without losing balance. Take these behaviors to the equipment when the dog is ready.

Lifting right front paw (left picture). Lifting right rear paw (right picture).

The next steps in core strengthening are to teach your dog to raise two limbs simultaneously on the same side (ipsilateral stand) and diagonally across the body. I start these behaviors once the dog clearly understands how to individually target each limb, and then I chain the two limbs that I want together. Eventually, these behaviors can be brought to unstable equipment as well. Often, we look for short cuts especially in working the core. We want to take the dog straight to standing on a peanut and then lifting the legs for them. While they get some exercise out of that, those pathways are not being formed that will help the dog recover when a leg slips out from under them in an agility run. Teaching the dog to be able to lift each leg independently builds those neuro-muscular pathways (commonly known as muscle memory) and that is what really helps when it comes to injury prevention in athletics.

Beginning of the Ipsilateral Stand on the right side (left picture).  Beginnings of the Diagonal Stand  right front and left hind (right picture).

To increase core strength, gradually increase the duration your dog holds the position. For example, start with three sets of 30 seconds daily for eight weeks, then increase to 45 seconds. As your dog better understands lifting each leg add those in as well. Remember, we all have good days and bad days. So do not worry if last week your dog was able to hold perfect form all three sets of 30 seconds and now they cannot. Give them a day off and try again the next day. If your dog continues to struggle you should have a professional look them over.

Now you have the basics for a full body work out. Try to incorporate the hind end (sit to stand), the front end (pus- ups), and the core (all 4) in all your work outs. Happy exercising!

For other articles in this series, visit:

Part One: Getting Started (8/26/15)

Part Two: The Sit to Stand (9/9/15)

Part Three: The Push Up (9/23/15)

Leslie Eide, DVM, CCRT, FitPAWS® Master Trainer" Instructor, graduated from Colorado State University's Veterinary School in 2006. She completed a rotating internship in small animal medicine in Albuquerque, NM. She continued her education by becoming certified in canine rehabilitation through the Canine Rehab Institute with a focus in sports medicine. She continues to learn more about rehabilitation, sports medicine and pain management through daily practice and continuing education seminars.

In the agility world, Leslie has trained two dogs to their ADCH, one to ADCH Bronze, ATCH2, and MACH. Three of her dogs have qualified and competed at USDAA Nationals with multiple Grand Prix Semi-final runs. She currently competes with three dogs in agility.


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