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Canine Cross Training: Building Balance, Strength and Endurance in Your Dog - Part 1 of a Series

For Health & Wellness Wednesdays, we will be featuring an excerpt of a chapter from the book, "Canine Cross Training: Building Balance, Strength and Endurance in Your Dog" by Sasha Foster, MSPT, CCRT.


Sasha Foster, author of "Canine Cross Training: Building Balance, Strength and Endurance in Your Dog", is a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist (CCRT) who wrote the book to provide a guide for other CCRTs, veterinarians and other canine health professionals who work with dogs with physical issues, as well as for dog enthusiasts who engage in sports and other activities with their dogs that can lead to physical ailments. 

In the book, each chapter on a different area of concern is based on a case study of a specific dog. With the kind permission of Dogwise Publications, we will be reprinting the chapter on "Balance" split into sections on Wednesdays over the next few weeks. We hope this provides valuable information and you can visit www.dogwise.com to find out more about the book and use coupon code USDAA for 10% off. Enjoy!

Canine Cross Training: Building Balance, Strength and Endurance in Your Dog by Sasha Foster, MSPT, CCRT - Chapter 3 - Balance (Part 1)

DVM Observations: Cleared for a conditioning program.

Conditioning Goal: Highly competitive agility dog. Needs to be fast and injury-free to compete at an international level.

CCRT Observations: Will benefit from working up to Level Four balance, strength and endurance exercises:

  • Balance exercises to strengthen core and increase body awareness for faster reaction times.
  • Strength exercises to increase speed off the start line and decreases the probability of injuries.
  • Endurance sprint training to increase speed.
  • Stretching with the agility stretching routine found in the book The Healthy Way to Stretch Your Dog after every session of exercises.
  • Recommend quarterly sports physicals to identify soft tissue imbalances long before they manifest as potential injuries The CCRT will communicate di­rectly with the DVM to discuss any recommenda­tions that require skilled rehabilitation services, in­cluding sports physicals.

Building balance

Balance is the first and most important conditioning component in a cross training program. Balance is the body's ability to know where it is in the environment and to respond accordingly. Its purpose is both defensive, protecting the body from injury and offensive, helping the body fine-tune movements. This occurs because the body provides the brain with three types of sensory input that help delineate body posi­tion: (1) visual, from the eyes; (2) vestibular, from the ears; and (3) sen­sory, from the muscles and tendons (Kandel, et. al., 1991). The brain integrates these sensations creating a picture of where the body is in relation to the physical world. If the position feels unstable or unsafe, the brain sends an action signal to the muscles and the body employs fine-tuning movements to protect itself from injury.

Photo Caption: As Idgie steps onto the peanut, her eyes watch, vestibular system senses, and paws feel the movement. This sensory information is sent to the brain where an action decision is made and she either continues the exercise or steps off the equipment.

Because balance results from integration of vision, inner ear balance and touch, training each of the systems will improve balance. The opposite is also true. If even one of these three systems is not functioning optimally, balance may be impaired. Older dogs with visual or vestibular impairments may hesitate to jump down or move quickly. Athletic dogs with decreased rear limb awareness may demonstrate imprecise movement. Young dogs, still sculpting their nervous systems, may simply lie down to prevent falling. Fortunately, all three of these systems can be trained to function at their greatest capacity, in particular the sensory system which can be maximized in healthy dogs using balance training exercises that include core stabilization and whole body awareness.

Building core stability

As the dog's core stability improves, balance reactions also improve. Increasing core stability requires strengthening postural stabilizing muscles also known as the core stabilizers. Unlike the long muscles that move the limbs, postural stabilizing muscles hold the body upright. In general, they are smaller, spanning near or over joints. They contain a high density of proprioceptive fibers, nerves that send body position signals to the brain (Martin, et. al., 1991). Strengthening these muscles increases the quality of information the brain receives as well as optimizing the body's ability to respond to brain decisions (Ghez, et. al., 1991). Strengthening the postural stabilizing muscles of the low back, including the abdominal muscles, creates a corset-like effect that controls movement in this highly mobile area of the spine (Herbert, et. al., 2010). Good control of the low back provides a solid center in the body from which all limb movement emanates. Without a strong core, the low back can become hyper-mobile, predisposing a dog to back injuries and decreasing the quality of front and rear limb movement.

Photo Captions: The strength gained with core stabilization exercises, if done with high quality and good form, will carry over into many different activities. Copper demonstrates Level 3 core stabilization strength with beautifully controlled hip extension (in the first photo). Notice how the strength gained carries over into vertical jumping, an activity that Copper does daily chasing squirrels along an eight foot fence line.

Balance builds whole body awareness

Another benefit of building balance is improved whole body awareness. Whole body awareness exercises increase the rate, or speed, of limb reaction time. Fast reaction time allows for precise movement changes on the fly, helping a dog navigate uneven terrain or quickly change directions at high speeds. Improvement in reaction time can only occur if the dog is consciously aware of all four limbs and is able to move them independently. If limb awareness is limited in the rear limbs, for example, movement may be cumbersome and disordered. This limits the quantity and quality of the signals the brain receives so balance reaction decisions are based on partial information about body position. Increasing limb reaction time with whole body awareness exercises helps dogs become aware of their entire bodies translating into conscious four-limb movement. (An interesting side note. It appears that dogs who learn to use their back legs independently start to have a preference for independent back limb movement during exercise.)

Balance exercises improve the strength of postural stabilizing muscles and increase the rate of limb reaction time. When completed consistently with good form, they provide the brain with precise sensory information about limb location. In turn, more accurate signals are sent to the body so positional changes can be fast and exact. This can help decrease the probability of a geriatric dog falling down, an athlete sustaining a sporting injury or a playful puppy tripping. It is the first and most important conditioning component in a cross training program.

This concludes this week's section. Stay tuned for the second section next Wednesday, April 27th!

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