Conditioning and Retraining the Canine Athlete


Exercise has significant physical and psychological benefits for dogs. One of the most important is extension of healthspan, the length of time that a dog remains healthy and active. Rehabilitation professionals are frequently asked to design tailored conditioning programs for young dogs before starting athletic training, for adult canine athletes that need a more comprehensive, sports-specific conditioning program, and for dogs recovering from injuries or surgery. There are two components of conditioning after an injury or surgery: the initial rehabilitation period that returns the dog to pet-level fitness, and sports retraining, which carefully prepares the dog for athletic competition again while preventing reinjury and compensatory overuse.

To design an appropriate conditioning program, the rehabilitation profession must first evaluate the dog’s structure, informing the owner/handler of the dog’s structural strengths and weaknesses and current fitness level so that the conditioning program can target specific areas that need improvement.

A balanced exercise program includes strength (anaerobic) training that targets the forelimbs, pelvic limbs and/or core body muscles, endurance (aerobic) training, proprioception and balance, preparation and recovery (stretching and flexibility), and skill training. The program should balance duration, frequency, and intensity of training while avoiding overtraining.

A sports retraining program requires that the rehabilitation professional have an understanding of the training requirements for the sport(s) in which the dog participates and provide specific guidance to the owner/handler as to what exercises and activities should be trained in what order and on what time schedule so that the dog is gradually and safely prepared to compete again.

Benefits of Conditioning

Exercise has proven to have both physical and psychological benefits in people, including the extension not only of life span, but also of healthspan (the length of time that an individual remains healthy and active) (Maitland, 2012; Mason & Holt, 2012; Vina et al., 2012). In fact, the psychological effects of exercise are so powerful that at least one study suggests that exercise should be considered a psychoactive drug (Vina et al., 2012). Because of the similarities in the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, and nervous systems in dogs to those of humans, the same benefits of exercise are afforded to dogs. Dogs that exercise have better body con­dition scores and cardiovascular function than more sedentary dogs, and experience the same psychological benefits (Menor-Campos et al., 2011; Warren et al., 2011; Bauer et al., 2012; Raichlen et al., 2012). Rehabilitation professionals working with canine athletes have observed that appropriately conditioned performance and working dogs per­form better and are less likely to suffer injuries. When injuries do occur, they tend to be less severe, and recovery is faster. In addition, fit working dogs suffer less stress, which translates to greater stamina and longevity as working dogs—a win–win situation for both dog and handler.

Most of the conditioning that a canine athlete experiences is provided at home by the owner/handler, rather than in the clinic. The rehabilitation professional can have a significant impact on a canine athlete’s career by providing specific guidance to the owner/handler regarding the most appropriate exercise program for his or her dog. There are several points in a canine athlete’s career at which experienced rehabilitation professionals may be consulted regarding conditioning programs:

(1) Owner/handlers will frequently ask rehabilitation professionals who understand canine structure and the requirements of the various canine performance events or working activities to evaluate their young dog’s structure and provide them with a tailored exercise program. They know that an appropriate conditioning program for a young dog will yield benefits once the dog is old enough to compete.

(2) Rehabilitation professionals often are consulted by owner/handlers with actively competing canine athletes or working dogs to develop a comprehensive conditioning pro­gram for the active adult dog to ensure that the dog is best prepared for its various activities and to help prevent or reduce the severity of injuries.

(3) Canine athletes and working dogs that are recovering from injuries need to undergo a rehabilitation and retraining program that has two components: (a) the initial rehabilitation period that helps the dog return to pet-level fitness, where it is able to carry out all the functions of daily living, and (b) a subsequent rehabilitation program that helps move the dog to competition-ready condition. Much of this second stage of the rehabilitation program will be in the hands of the client, who needs and wants to follow a detailed retraining program for the canine athlete or working dog.

Communication with the owner/handler is key. It cannot be overemphasized how important it is to spend time providing the details that will allow the owner/handler to apply the conditioning program optimally. In general, this type of appointment takes 1–2 hours and might include several follow-up appointments to monitor the owner/handler’s activity and the response of the canine athlete to the exercises and to modify the prescribed exercises accordingly. To develop a sports-specific conditioning program, it is essential that the re­­habilitation professional understand the requirements of the sports or working functions in which the dog participates (see Chapter 1).

Evaluating Canine Structure and Fitness

Before establishing a conditioning program for a canine athlete or working dog, or a dog destined to become one, the dog should be given a full clinical examination including complete blood count and serum chemistry screen. The dog should be evaluated structurally (see Chapter 1) and its structural strengths and weaknesses for the specific athletic activities planned discussed with the client. This is important so that a conditioning and/or retraining program can be designed that takes advantage of the dog’s strengths and mitigates its weaknesses.

For example, German Shepherd Dogs generally have abundant pelvic limb angulation. This gives them a very long stride, allowing them to jump high and long, which can be an advantage in protection and police work. On the other hand, the same laxity of tendons and ligaments that results in such abundant pelvic limb angulation also means that dogs of this breed have a higher incidence of hip dysplasia and frequently experience hyperextension/hyperflexion of various joints, particularly the toes, carpi, and tarsi. As a result, they frequently experience trauma to their tarsi, which can hit the ground when the dog is running and jumping. In contrast, Belgian Malinois tend to have straighter front and rear assemblies, that is, reduced angles at the shoulder, elbow, stifle, and tarsus. This gives these dogs tremendous agility—they are known for their rapid acceleration and ability to turn sharply. They tend to suffer a different subset of injuries such as soft tissue injuries of the shoulder due to reaching the end range of motion more frequently. These differences in structure and their potential effects on the dog’s performance and longevity as an athlete or working dog should be taken into account when developing a conditioning program and should be discussed with the owner/handler.

Next, the dog should be evaluated for overall muscle fitness. One of the best ways to evaluate general fitness is to feel the size and tone of the core (paraspinal and abdominal) and pelvic limb muscles. The core body muscles are important for coordination of spinal and limb movements and are critical when immediate responses of the limbs are necessary. Since the front legs generally bear two-thirds of the dog’s weight and all the weight of the dog plus the effects of gravity when a dog is jumping, cantering, or galloping, the front limbs get more exercise than the pelvic limbs during routine daily activities and performance training/competition. As a result, clients with canine athletes, particularly those that are continuing to compete after their prime years, should place special emphasis on exercises to keep the pelvic limb and core muscles toned. The dog’s body condition score (see Chapter 4) also should be recorded.

Every performance and working dog should be screened for genetic and developmental problems. For example, all dogs should be screened for hip dysplasia, since this condition is common and can occur even in the very small breeds. All dogs over 30 lb should be screened for elbow dysplasia, which often occurs even in purebred dogs whose ancestors have been shown to be free of the condition. Elbow dysplasia significantly affects the performance of working dogs. In addition, dogs should be screened for breed-specific disorders that can affect performance, including musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, hematological, and ocular disorders.

Five Components of a Balanced Exercise Program

Imagine a football player who practiced with his team, but never lifted weights to increase his strength or did any aerobic exercise to increase his cardiovascular system’s ability to oxygenate his blood. He would never make it to the top of his game. Many owners/handlers spend the majority, if not all of their training time, practicing the skills of their chosen sport(s) with their dogs, but many do not have a comprehensive training program that makes time for targeted strength, endurance, balance, body awareness, and flexibility training. It is important to explain to clients that to maximize performance and minimize the likelihood and severity of injuries, they should have a long-term plan for overall conditioning that includes all of the components of a balanced regimen.

Strength (Anaerobic) Training

The most common form of strength-building activity is resistance training. In resistance training, the dog’s muscular effort is performed against an opposing force. In other words, the movement of a body part is opposed and made more difficult by a force generated by some additional stressor—accelerating upward against gravity, moving against inertia, braking against momentum, or pushing against friction or an elastic band that is designed to contract to a relaxed state. Resistance exercise is used to develop the strength and size of skeletal muscles. Properly performed, resistance training can provide significant functional bene­­fits and improvement in overall health and well-being.

Strength-building exercises are isotonic if a body part is moving against the force. Isotonic exercises strengthen the muscle throughout the entire range of motion of the exercise used. Exercises are isometric if a body part is holding still against the force. In isometric exercise, the joint angle and muscle length do not change during contraction. Isometric exercises are opposed by a force equal to the force output of the muscle, and there is no net movement. This mainly strengthens the muscle at the specific joint angle at which the isometric exercise occurs.

The goal of resistance training is to gradually and progressively overload the musculoskeletal system so that it gets stronger (Kraemer, 2003). Compared with low-intensity exercise, moderate and high-intensity resistance exercises are potent stimuli for increases in muscle protein synthesis (MacDougall et al., 1995; Phillips et al., 1997) and satellite cell activity (Hawke & Garry, 2001; Harridge, 2007) and decreases in proteolysis (Louis et al., 2007). The basic principle of strength training to achieve overload involves a manipulation of the types of exercises, the number of repetitions of a given exercise, the number of sets (each set consisting of a number of repetitions), and tempo, or how quickly the exercise is performed.

Whereas humans can lift free weights or use resistance machines, dogs most often use their bodies as the weight and build strength by moving their bodies over short distances with bursts of muscular energy. Strength can also be built by having a dog pull an object over the ground (dragged against friction) or push against an elastic band such as a Thera-Band® (Thera-Band, Akron, OH).

Strength training exercise is primarily anaerobic (Kraemer, 2003). Even while training at a lower intensity, anaerobic glycolysis is still the major source of power, although aerobic metabolism makes a small contribution (Knuttgen, 2003).

It is helpful to categorize the different canine strength exercises as targeting the forelimbs, pelvic limbs, or core body muscles, although many exercises target more than one area to varying degrees (Table 10.1). Conveniently, many excellent strength exercises can be performed in very small spaces indoors in air-conditioned comfort with minimal physical effort on the part of the owner/handler. Canine athlete owners/handlers are proficient at training dogs to perform various physical activities, so their dogs will be capable of being trained to perform a very wide variety of strength exercises. Further, these owners/handlers have significant financial and time investments in the patient and most are strongly committed to gaining and maintaining their dogs’ strength, understanding that it means health, longevity, and athletic success.

Table 10.1 Strength training exercises


One more point: Strength training needs to be fun for both the person and the dog. The most important point to stress is that an exercise routine must be enjoyable for the dog performing it. If a dog does not enjoy the activity that it is being asked to perform, its focus will drift, and its movements will cease to be purposeful. So strength-building activities should be those for which the dog is predisposed by genetics or for which it shows clear signs of excitement.

Indoor Strength Exercises

Forelimb Strengthening Exercises

WaveThe dog should be taught to wave each front paw separately, holding the paw higher than the head for as long as possible, preferably more than 5 seconds (Figure 10.1).

WheelbarrowThe dog’s pelvic limbs are grasped at the tarsus and the rear is raised off the ground, flexing the legs at the pelvis, stifle, and tarsus (Figure 10.2). The higher the rear is raised, the more difficult the exercise. The dog can be walked forward and turned to the right and left. To increase difficulty, the dog can be walked over the rungs of a ladder, up an incline, and eventually up stairs.

High-FiveThe dog is asked to place each paw separately against the handler’s hand (Figure 10.3). The handler can have the dog aim its paws at various locations, high or low, abducted or adducted, depending on which muscles are being targeted (see Chapter 8).

HandstandThe dog is trained to back up to a wall and raise its pelvic limbs up along a wall until it is doing a handstand (Figure 10.4). The dog can then be taught to move sideways to the right and left along the wall. This exercise strengthens the muscle groups that are used when agility dogs stop with two feet on the ground and two feet on the A-frame or dogwalk obstacles, referred to as a “2-on, 2-off contact.”

TuggingPlaying tug is a favorite activity of many performance dogs (Figure 10.5). When the owner/handler holds the tug object low, the dog pushes with the front feet and can be encouraged to move its body from side to side. This exer­­cise strengthens the stabilizer muscles of the forelimbs.

DiggingDogs can be taught to dig in soil or sand by hiding a food-filled plastic bag for them to discover (Figure 10.6). This exercise also strengthens the core muscles.

Figure 10.1 A dog waving with the paw raised and held above head level.


Figure 10.2 A dog practicing the wheelbarrow. The owner/handler holds the rear limbs flexed and elevated.


Figure 10.3 A dog demonstrating the high-five. The owner/handler can have the dog aim its paws at various locations: high or low, abducted or adducted, depending on which muscles are being targeted.


Figure 10.4 Dog demonstrating the handstand.


Figure 10.5 Dog tugging. When the tug object is held low, the forelimbs are targeted. When the tug object is held higher, weight is taken off the forelimbs and the pelvic limbs are worked.


Figure 10.6 Dog digging in sand to exercise the forelimbs and core.

Photo by Roseann Baars.


Core Strengthening Exercises

BegWhile sitting on a firm, nonslip surface, food is used to lure the dog onto its haunches with the front legs in the air (Figure 10.7). Once the dog is able to stay in this position for 15 seconds, rhythmic then nonrhythmic perturbations can be applied by pushing on the back, shoulders, or chest to place the dog off-balance. In addition, if the dog already knows how to wave or high-five, placing the front paws at different locations, these exercises can be added to the beg exercise to off-balance the dog. The exercise is then made more difficult by sequentially having the dog perform the exercise on a soft surface (bed, couch, air mattress), then on hills (facing the dog up, down, or sideways in each direction), and finally on an egg-shaped physioball with the client moving the ball rhythmically, then nonrhythmically. Most dogs require several months to develop enough strength to proceed through all of these stages. This exercise is very difficult, but owners/handlers should be encouraged to keep working on it, since attempting and failing means that the muscles are working to overload, which is necessary to build strength.
Owners/handlers with chondrodystrophic dogs such as Dachshunds or Corgis frequently are told not to let their dogs beg because of a potential risk of spinal injury. However, with careful progression, this exercise can actually strengthen the core muscles, thus helping protect against the hyperflexion and hyperextension of the vertebrae that is thought to contribute to disk degeneration and spondylosis. The only caution for this exercise is that it should not be undertaken by dogs with acute back pain or chronic back pain of unknown origin.

CrawlThe dog is lured to crawl under PVC poles that are inserted into traffic cones with holes drilled at various heights (see Chapter 8).

Stand/Down/StandThe dog is placed in a square stand with the feet under the trunk, then asked to lie down and stand back up without moving the feet (Figure 10.8). This exercise is hardest for dogs with abundant rear angulation and/or straight front limb angulation.

Backing Up StairsThe dog is taught to stand on the ground facing away from a set of three to five stairs, then rewarded for backing the pelvic limbs up onto the lowest step, then the next step up for a larger dog (Figure 10.9). Incrementally, the dog is encouraged to back up the steps one at a time. Eventually, the dog is able to slowly back up an entire flight of stairs.

Roll OverMost dogs will begin to roll over if they are lying down and a treat is placed on the shoulder near the top of the scapula, but in a position that allows the dog to nibble on it (Figure 10.10). As the dog’s nose reaches toward its shoulder, the food is moved closer to the dog’s spine and the dog naturally rolls over. Dogs should be taught to roll in both directions. To increase the difficulty of this exercise, the dog can be taught to roll up an incline. This is another exercise that, like begging, requires significant strength to complete. Clients might need to try for several weeks before the dog is strong enough to roll over completely and certainly to roll up an incline.

Wobble BoardDogs can be encouraged to sit, stand, or lie down with their forelimbs, pelvic limbs, or both on a wobble board and to switch between these positions (Figure 10.11). Once the dog is confident on the board, playing a game of tug increases the strength component considerably.

Ball PushingThe dog is trained to stand with its front feet on a physioball or solid plastic ball and then walk with its hind legs, pushing the ball as it goes. To use this exercise to build forelimb strength, the ball should be no higher than the dog’s manubrium. For strengthening the core, the dog can push a larger, round, or peanut-shaped physioball (Figure 10.12).

Diagonal Leg Standing (Snoopies)(See Chap­­ter 8).

Figure 10.7 Dog demonstrating the beg. Once the dog can remain in this position for 15 seconds, the owner/handler can push on the dog’s shoulders, chest and back to off-balance the dog, causing it to work the core muscles to stabilize itself in the beg position.


Figure 10.8 Dog demonstrating the down-stand-down. The dog moves between the stand and down without moving its feet.


Figure 10.9 Backing up the stairs. The owner/handler can start with a short set of steps and proceed to a full flight.


Figure 10.10 In the early stages of training a dog to roll over, food is held at the dog’s shoulder to encourage it to roll over.


Figure 10.11 A dog standing on a wobble board with the front or rear feet.


Figure 10.12 A dog demonstrating pushing a peanut-shaped physioball.


Pelvic Limb Strengthening Exercises

Beg/Stand/BegBy far the best indoor exercise for strengthening the pelvic limbs is to have the dog first sit in the beg position then raise itself to a stand, standing as still as possible for 15 seconds, and then lowering back down to the beg position without letting the front legs touch the ground (Figure 10.13). As with the simple beg, this exercise is made significantly more difficult by performing it on a soft surface, then hills, then on a physioball. The dog should be limited to raising itself three times from the beg position in any given session. This exercise should not be performed by dogs with acute or ongoing injuries to the rear limbs or spine.

Jumping VerticallyA small dog can be encouraged to jump on a couch or bed, and a larger dog can jump into an SUV or onto a retaining wall. Note, however, that dogs should be gently lowered to the ground, not allowed to jump down from these higher heights because of the potential for shoulder and/or elbow trauma with repeated landings.

Pushing Against a Therapy BandWith the dog on a nonslip surface, the owner/handler stands behind the dog and slings a therapy band around the front of the dog’s chest, holding one end with each hand near the dog’s pelvis like a set of reins. The dog is asked to lean forward to get a treat or its dinner (Figure 10.14). This works best if the food is placed in a bowl elevated to the dog’s chest height. Alternatively, the dog can be placed in a nonrestrictive harness (one that leaves the forelimbs free to extend forward) and a bungee cord attached to the harness instead of a leash. The dog uses its pelvic limbs to pull against the bungee cord toward the food.

TuggingBy elevating the tug toy, the dog’s weight shifts to the rear to build strength there.

Figure 10.13 The beg-stand-beg. Using food the dog is lured from a beg into a stand, and back into the beg position without putting its front feet on the ground.

Photos by Sandra Murley.


Jul 9, 2017 | Posted by in EQUINE MEDICINE | Comments Off on Conditioning and Retraining the Canine Athlete

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