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Canine Cross Training: Building Balance, Strength and Endurance in Your Dog - Part 4 of a Series

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


Reprinted with the kind permission of Dogwise Publications. 

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

Training specificity

The principle of training specificity states that balance exercises will improve balance, not strength, endurance or flexibility. Because core stabilization requires strengthening the postural stabilizing muscles, it is considered a strengthening exercise as well as a balance exercise and it is placed in the balance chapter because it is the foundation of all movement. Without a strong core, limb movement can cause hyper-mobility of the back predisposing the dog to chronic pain and injury, fast balance reactions can never occur and rear limb strength can never carry over into performance activities. The importance of building powerful core strength is the reason it is the most significant component in a cross training program. To repeat, it is both a balance exercise and a strengthening exercise.

Because core exercises strengthen postural stabilizing muscles during the process of training, the body may release lactic acid, a sign that the muscles are strengthening. This causes tight or stiff movement called delayed-onset-muscle-soreness (DOMS) twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the exercise. (Please see the Chapter 4 for ways to decrease DOMS in a cross training program). DOMS is the reason balance training should not occur forty-eight hours before an event. Sore and tight muscles can temporarily decrease reaction time.

Whole body awareness, on the other hand, is a true balance exercise. It does not necessarily improve strength, endurance or flexibility. Its purpose is to increase the speed and precision of limb movement by increasing proprioception, the signals from the muscles that define body position for the brain. When proprioception is optimized, the body automatically makes fast accurate motor decisions that carry over into many activities.

Balance exercises

Before beginning core stabilization and whole body exercises to improve balance, the correct intensity of exercises must be determined. To determine the appropriate level, begin by asking the dog to complete the Level Two tests detailed above. If the dog is very unsteady or is unable to complete five repetitions of the exercise with good form and control, begin the dog with Level One exercises. If the dog is unsteady but able to complete five repetitions of exercise, begin the dog at Level Two. If the dog is steady and easily completes five repetitions of exercise, test the dog for Level Three. Repeat this process until the correct level is determined. Testing results may place the dog in one level for core stabilization and another level for whole body awareness. Because core stability is the foundation for all movement, all exercises should default to the core stability level.

After balance exercises have been completed for twelve weeks, conditioning outcomes must be reviewed. If the balance goal has been met, the current exercises should continue. If the balance goal has not been met, then the balance exercise intensity should be increased by moving the dog to the next level of exercise. When a dog has progressed to the next level, the twelve week process of cellular adaptation begins again at the start of the new level. At the end of the next twelve week mark, the conditioning outcome should be reviewed again. This process continues until the desired balance outcome has been achieved.

Level One core stabilization exercise

Ask the dog to stand with his back feet behind an immovable object and stretch forward using a nose target. If the dog steps over the object, repeat and stretch forward only as far as the dog can hold the position. Hold for fifteen seconds. Repeat five times. Ensure good posture by insisting on a straight back, eyes looking forward, and maintaining equal weight on the right and left paws.

Level One core stabilization exercise

Is this too easy?

Isn't this exercise too easy? One of the primary core stabilizing muscles is the Iliopsoas muscle. It spans beneath the spine from the inside upper thigh to the rib cage. In a standing position, with the body stretched forward, this muscle has to be eccentrically contract (control the movement as the muscle lengthens) to maintain the position. If the dog steps out of this stacked position easily, it is highly likely this primary core stabilizing muscle is weak or tight. Including Iliopsoas stretches in the post-exercise stretch routine will help optimize this muscle's extensibility for improved core stabilization strength.

Level Two core stabilization exercise

Ask the dog to stand with his back feet on a balance disc by having him step forward over the disc or step backward onto the disc. Ask him to stretch forward using nose targeting. If the dog steps off the disc, repeat and stretch forward only as far as the dog can hold the position. Hold for fifteen seconds. Repeat five times. Ensure good posture by insisting on a straight back, eyes looking forward and maintaining equal weight on the right and left paws.

Level Two core stabilization exercise

Level Three core stabilization exercise

Ask the dog to stand with his back feet on an elbow-height box by having him step forward over the box or step backward onto the box. Ask him to stretch forward using nose targeting. If the dog steps off the box, repeat and stretch forward only as far as the dog can hold the position. Hold for fifteen seconds. Repeat five times. Ensure good posture by insisting on a straight back, eyes looking forward, and maintaining equal weight on the right and left paws. As the dog gets stronger with this exercise, he may choose to roll onto the top of his feet. This is fine as long as good posture is maintained.

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Level Three core stabilization exercise.

What if he does not like it?

My dog does not like this exercise. What should I do?

Natural conformation for some dogs includes a sloping croup, or top line, similar to this Whippet. For dogs with this posture, they may be more comfortable completing the exercise on a lower box which doesn't require as much lumbo-sacral extension, or arching of the low back.

Level Four core stabilization exercise

Stabilize an elbow-height balance peanut from behind with a box or the wall. Ask the dog to stand with his back feet on the peanut by stepping backward. If the dog steps off the peanut repeat until he can hold the position. Hold for fifteen seconds. Repeat five times. Good posture is still required (straight back, eyes looking forward, and equal weight shifting through the right and left paws). Unlike the exercises in Level One to Three, the dog must actively move the entire body to control the peanut. The exercise is dynamic which can be seen by Idgies tail movement.

Level Four core stabilization exercise.

Canine Cross Training Spotlight

Idgie enjoying a stretch after exercise

The day following a cross training session, Idgie takes longer leisurely stretches before she gets moving in the morning, an indication she may have DOMS. To decrease muscle stiffness, Sarah takes her for a long walk. The second day after the session, Idgie still seems to be a little stiff and she has to help teach agility class. Before class begins, Sarah makes sure Idgie completes a dynamic warm-up that includes fifteen minutes of walking followed by two repetitions of each exercise before class begins. A dynamic warm-up, one that moves the body increasing circulation and priming the nerves for quick movements, may improve dexterity. This is true for humans, too. See Lori Hansens "Human Agility Training" to warm-up with your dog. After class Sarah stretches Idgie with the agility stretching routine from "The Healthy Way to Stretch Your Dog." Static stretching before an event may decrease the passive energy stored in a muscle and therefore decrease strength.

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!

This concludes this week's section. Stay tuned for the final section on next Wednesday, May 18th. Click here to read part onepart two and part three.

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