Many things go into keeping your dog in good “condition” and how performance is improved. Improved performance can mean many things. Listed below is what I perceive as improving performance through handler improvements, strength improvements and increasing endurance.
BETTER: Handling is a huge key. How many handlers out there feel like they are the caboose on an out of control train when running a freakishly fast dog?? I know how you feel. I have been the caboose. Poor or late handling has an adverse effect on performance.
For example: When you give your dog late cues, they fold shoulders as they land turning over jumps, contort their bodies in all kinds of difference ways to immediately change directions, drop bars and land very hard on their wrists and shoulders, just to name a few things. Does this sound familiar??
If your dog is properly conditioned it will reduce the chance of soft tissue injury in these types of situations. This is not to say that you shouldn’t do everything in your power to give your dog timely cues and continue to improve your handling skills and footwork. Keeping your dog strong and balanced will help a dog during the training process as well as during those times when you just can’t seem to get there.
FASTER: When a dog is propelling forward, turning, stopping and landing using their core muscles (the center of their movement) and using all four legs, they will get faster. When you teach your dog where their rear feet are, how to use their limbs properly and exercises to improve strength, they will move with greater precision. Faster might also mean, improved focus for the game. Engaging your dog in a regular conditioning program has improved focus in my student’s dogs over and over.
If your dog has previously been lame for any reason, the dog is likely not using the previously injured limb efficiently and this will slow your dog’s momentum and increase their chance of re-injury. Teaching this dog how to redistribute weight and increase muscle in the injured limb is key to participating in any K9 performance event.
STRONGER: It has been proven time and time again, that strength improves stability and lends to increased endurance in human athletes. This same concept can be applied to your K9 Athlete. Using a variety of exercises on a regularschedule is the key to success!! Exercise that strengthen the muscles above and below the joints, will improve stability and balance. For instance, improving quad muscle strength and flexibility, supports a dog’s knees during movement.
Improving your dog’s physical and mental endurance will only enhance performance. Designing a regular program for your dog is the key to SUCCESS!! In just 10-15 minutes every other day, you can make a huge difference in improving your dog’s performance.
If you are interested in teaching your dog how to be BETTER, FASTER and STRONGER, contact me to get more information on my online classes, in person and online private lessons by video exchange.
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF
When our dogs get older and unable to do performance any longer, what then? Often we all get new puppies to train. It is important to continue to pay attention to the physical and mental needs of our retired dogs.
There are a few things that I think are very important to keep in mind.
Number 1-WEIGHT: I believe it is VERY important to make dietary adjustments when older dogs become less active. A less active dog does not need as many calories and the single most important thing you can do for your older dog is keep them THIN. Extra weight on the joints can cause pain, inflammation and deterioration. If you are unsure how to tell if your dog is a good weight, please refer to this fantastic article written by Chris Zink, DVM. (other useful articles found on this page)
Number 2 - STRENGTH: What about K9 Conditioning for the older dog? Depending on the age and activity level of the dog, a conditioning program will help your dog gain muscle, maintain muscle and or reduce muscle loss caused by inactivity and age contributions.
Number 3-MENTAL: Old dogs CAN learn new tricks and many of these tricks will help to strengthen, or maintain muscle mass as well as mentally challenge your dog.
My oldest dog Stanley is 12 years old and he has not lost much muscle as he ages. When I am working the other dogs on new tricks, conditioning exercises and even agility practice he is right there waiting his turn. Do I make adjustment for him, sure I do. I modify the difficulty of the exercises and time spent. If we are doing agility, we skip the A-frame, lower the jumps to half his regular jump height and have fun.
Performance dogs are not generally happy just to BE. They want activity and challenges in their life. Finding the balance that works for your dog is Key. Don’t over exercise your dog until they are sore and limping the next day, even if it is a trip to the beach and they are having a blast. Don’t allow your older dog to get fat and make sure you are providing mental challenges.
And by far the most important things is to take a few moments every day to hug your older dog and thank them for being your best friend, for doing all the things we ask of them, for being our guinea pig in training and for loving us even when we make mistakes.
Concerns with Rear Foot targeting
Rear foot targeting is something I use for many strength and body awareness exercises. Teaching a rear foot target can be very useful and IMO can also teach poor weight distribution.
Here is a short list of some behaviors trained with rear foot targeting.
· Backing up/Get back
· Hand stands
· 2o2o contact behavior
· Crawl back
High repetition REAR foot targeting can teach the dog/puppy to put all their weight forward on their shoulders. This is not a bad thing in low repetition. In high repetition, I find that these dog’s target everything in their path with their rear feet. I have student’s dogs that have rear foot targeting my legs, a stool, a wall, really anything when stepping sideways or backward. This will hinder the dog’s ability to shift weight to the rear and puts added stress on the dog’s shoulders.
Some issues I have seen with high repetition rear foot targeting:
· hinders the dog ability to engage their core muscles properly due to shifting their weight forward when they lift their rear leg and their head drops below their spine.
· when the dog continues to offer a rear foot instead of focusing on the task at hand, it increases training time for other exercises, tricks and behaviors.
· Increases handler frustration when teaching their dog to shift their weight to the rear.
· Increased muscle mass on ONE rear leg as they tend to lift the same rear leg all the time.
· pelvis rotation or spine misalignment due to always lifting the same leg (confirmed by K9 Chiropractor)
· shoulder soreness
· tight in the thoracic and cervical spine
As part of a conditioning program (or for any performance dog program), a good practice is to pick one rear foot targeting exercise and then pair it with two other exercises that encourage the dog to shift weight to the rear, flatten their back and engage their core. These could be balance and core strength exercises using FitPAWS balance discs, peanuts or paw pods but could also be floor exercises that lengthen and strengthen through the spine such as rearward weight shifting, sit stands with front feet elevated, or crawl forward and backward. Lengthening back stretches are can also be helpful. Pairing exercises this way keeps your dog from expecting to always target something behind them.
A note on shaping:
Many of us shape exercises encouraging the dog to think on their own, which is a fabulous training tool. Once you have the correct behavior shaped (allowing the dog to offer behaviors), put a name or a hand signal to the behavior so that you can encourage the dog to listen and focus and not ALWAYS “offer” behaviors. In my world, a handler’s silence means “offer”, hand signals and verbal commands means “pay attention to what I am asking you to do”. In doing this, you are teaching the dog to not always offer behaviors such as lifting a rear leg on everything near them. :-) This is probably a topic for another day, maybe a future blog post :-)
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF
Online classes - http://classroom.daisypeel.com/courses-offered/k9-conditioning-rehab-classes/
Contact me for in-person or online private lessons
If you have ever taken a class from me you KNOW how I feel about warming up and cooling down your dog before and after activity. This is one of the easiest steps you can take to help reduce injury in your agility dogs.
There are NOT always convenient environments for warm ups and cool downs. I have students all over the world and some do not have inside training facilities that have room for you to warm up your dog. Time is a factor as well. Some would say they don’t have enough time. So what do you do?
The answer is the VERY BEST you can. In the absence of space or even time, think about movements you can do to warm up your dog’s major joints: hips, shoulders, and the spine which includes the neck and tail. We all get caught off guard and have to run to the start line now and again, it happens. In these cases you still need a fast warm up such as down to stands, turn circles in each direction or weave through your legs, lateral movements and backing up. These are things you can do in a small space while waiting your turn. After your run take special care in cooling your dog down. I generally recommend using your warm up routine in reverse.
Warm does not mean temperature per say, but think more in terms of movement of the joints. I hear a lot about these jackets people buy to keep their dogs warm. Let me be clear. There is nothing that is a substitute for movement. If I was cold and wrapped up in a blanket curled up on the couch, I would not drop the blanket and sprint, turn, stop suddenly, bend etc I do believe these jackets have amazing benefits in very cold conditions to keep your dog “warm” between runs and aid in muscle recovery, but they are not a substitute for moving all major joints through range of motion prior to activity.
The recommendation is to spend 5-10 minutes warming up your dog and 5-10 minutes cooling down your dog. Developing a routine that you and your dog can do before each run can only increase your dog’s connection to you, improve speed and accuracy in movement as well as decrease the chance of injury.
Also be aware that it is important to warm up your dog's joints before tossing a ball or frisbee, before hiking, swimming, endurance trot work or before any activity or performance sport.
Do you warm up your dog before activity???
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF
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Over training is very common in dog training. Many dogs will work and work and work and never show signs of fatigue or unwillingness to continue. As the handler, it is your job to set time and repetition limits so you don't end up deteriorating your dog's muscles, ligaments and joints. On any given day that you are not at performance practice or competition, you training sessions should not exceed 5-15 min. (IMO). I recommend setting a timer (smart phones all have timers). You will be amazed how short 5 minutes is but you will be thanking me in the long run for encouraging you to be more aware. Many handlers do not see issue from over training until the dog is 3-5 years old when “over training catches up with them”. A dogs structure can play apart in these injuries. It is very important to learn to SEE your dog, put your hands on your dog everyday, watch their movement and notice when they are "off".
If you are over training repetitive movement it can cause muscles to fatigue and that will lend to compensations in other parts of the dog’s body. Once your dog starts compensating for soreness, you will have bigger problems that can have a domino effect on other muscles and limbs. The physical ramifications of “repetitive” training can be huge for a performance dog that does not get sufficient rest for their muscles to recover or that over trains during single sessions. I have personally seen over-training injuries such as torn or ruptured cruciate ligament (knee), spinal alignment issues that cause other compensations and lameness, shoulder injury, lumbar/sacral muscle soreness, escalation in reactive behavior, wrist arthritis from jumping, soft tissue injuries and MORE. Soft tissue injury is very hard to diagnose and can take a very long time to heal.
When I teach my online classes, private lessons and workshops, I talk a lot about schedules. Everyone’s schedule is different, that is for sure. It is important to develop a training plan that fits your schedule, your dog’s needs, and the individual goals for that dog, while keeping in mind what is best for the dog with respect to repetition and timed training. If you have multiple dogs in the house, your goals will likely be different for each dog due to age, weight, competition level, behavior issues, your available time etc. Spreadsheets work wonders for keeping track of this stuff!!!
I subscribe to the LESS IS MORE philosophy. When developing a training plan, you have to consider, performance training, strength/stretching and endurance training without “overdoing it”.
Rules of thumb for a healthy adult do
For a young dog before growth plates closed, I recommend training session not more than one minute for every month they are old. (walking or trotting limits, see my previous post “Sustained Trotting” ) Within each training session SEVERAL behaviors should be taught. The attention span of a puppy is very short and you will accomplish more by keeping your sessions short and not creating physical issues with repetition.
Questions and comments are always welcome
Many things should be considered when designing a K9 Fitness/Conditioning program for you and your dog. There is not a “one size fits all” conditioning program. It is not just about tossing your dog up on a piece of equipment. The position the dog is in can make a huge difference in the muscles they are using and if the exercise is improving strength or causing weakness.
Things to consider when designing a conditioning program:
· Your dog’s age
· Current physical condition of the dog
· Has your dog had previous injury
· What sport or sports is your dog involved in
· Have you gotten any guidance on using equipment safely
· Competition schedule
· Do YOU have any physical limitation that may affect your ability to support your dog
· Do you have the space needed to complete the exercise ( living room, backyard, garage)
· Do you have a non-slip surface for your dog to work on
· Are you willing to devote 10-20 minutes at least three times a week to improve performance and reduce the change of injury in your dog.
A full body program should include exercises that improve the following:
· Weight distribution
· Overall strength
A warm up and cool down strategy should be in place before and after performance and fitness training. The recommendation is to spend 5-10 minutes warming up your dog and 5-10 minutes cooling down your dog. Developing a routine that you and your dog can do before each run can only increase your dog’s connection to you, improve speed and accuracy in movement as well as decrease the chance of injury.
If you are in the process of designing a program for your dog I hope this list of considerations helps you to pick exercises that are appropriate for your dog's age, current physical condition and the activities you are involved in. I also hope that it you have not sought out proper training, that this will encourage you to do so. Better to make sure that what you are doing is helping and not hurting your dog.
Questions and comments are always welcome
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF
Today I want to talk about what may or may not be good for a puppy’s knee joints when starting a K9 Conditioning or any training program. There has been a lot of discussion about this topic lately so I thought I would catalog my thoughts here. I start training a puppy the day it arrives at my house. What I choose to do all depends on their level of engagement and their age. Because of my dog with structure issues, I am very cautious about a puppy’s joints.
K9 Conditioning exercise can be done with dogs of all ages. I generally recommend shorter training sessions, less repetitions and high reward for puppies. There are precautions you should take with a dog younger than a year old (or before growth plates have closed). The growth plate at the head of the tibia at the stifle (knee joint) is one of the last growth plates to close at around 10-14 months - depending on the breed. This leaves the stifle (knee) joint less stable for a longer period of time than other joints. Because of this instability, I prefer to do exercises and activities with caution. Not to say that the puppy has to be totally restricted just better choices can be made. More information about growth plates can be found in the reference book noted at the end of this post.
Below is a list of equipment to use and what activities are best for puppies. This is NOT a complete list. These are my personal preferences and are on the “cautious” side. There are many activities that a puppy can do in the regular course of life that puts stress on their joints, or could cause injury. My goal is to decrease the chances of injury. Genetic issues can also play a part. Some dogs are more predisposed to injury than others. Caution is always the best option. You don’t have to put your puppy in the glass house but decreasing repetitive movement on unstable surfaces is a proactive approach to injury prevention.
If there is a stable option when doing a conditioning program or any training with your puppy, “why not use it” instead of the unstable option where you may be taking a chance of early injury (tear, strain, rupture etc)? Simple: USE THE STABLE OPTION
Some equipment I would NOT recommend for puppies
1. Balance discs (any size)
2. The flat side of a Bosu trainer-which generally has a very slippery surface
3. Wobble board or Buja board. I like to wait on these until growth plates are closed.
4. Slippery floors-causes a dog to have to over emphasize movements and that can create stress on the joints.
The four items listed can create stress on the knee ligaments and tendons that stabilize the knee. Sideways rotation of the knee can cause injury to the ligaments. If a ligament is torn, it is injured forever. Ligaments do not regenerate they heal by creating scar tissue. Surgery can be performed to repair the ligament but as I understand it, no repair is as flexible as the uninjured ligament before injury. Scar tissue is not as flexible as ligaments. A torn, ruptured or strained ligament can be detrimental to a performance dog due to chances of re-injury or injuring the other knee. For more information about the injury of ligaments, see reference noted at the end of this post.
Equipment and activities I would recommend for puppies (on the cautious side):
1. A Rocker board rocks in two directions like a teeter. This is used for balancing with all four feet on the board, rocking back and forth or side to side to engage core muscles
2. Peanut exercises – get advice from someone who knows about correct positioning
3. Phone books, Rubbermaid stool, & aerobic bench-Great tools for body awareness, muscle strengthening activities and to mentally challenge your puppy.
4. Paw pods or tuna cans – GREAT for body awareness, core/trunk strength and mental challenge
5. Weight shifting on the flat, on an aerobic bench and on the rocker board is great for core strength, stabilizer muscle strength and improving balance.
6. Sit pretty – as long as trained correctly with hocks flat on the floor, hind legs tucked under the puppies butt, with feet tracking forward, and a straight back.
7. Rollover –strengthens core, muscles along the spine, hips and shoulders.
8. Independent back up - encourages weight distributed to both rear legs and improve body awareness if each foot is moving independently (do not toss a treat between your dogs front feet to encourage back up, this just teaches your dog to hop back and put all their weight forward on their shoulders)
My thoughts on equipment and activities for puppies, to reduce the chance of knee injury, for what they are worth. .02 cents at least???
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF
K9 Fitness Coach
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A question was asked in one of my online K9 Conditioning Classes about some “fad” tricks wondering if they are “safe” for our dog's joints. Sometimes the excitement of training something new and fun spurs on too much repetition. Most things are OK in moderation, some with risks and some without. Using common sense with respect to safety and repetition is all that is needed. It is truly amazing to me what people will ask their dogs to do and then be astounded and horrified by the cost of surgery and the amount of time spent in recovery.
When training new tricks, some of my concerns are:
That said, below is my opinion of the tricks that were questioned.
1. Rear feet up a wall (hand stands), is NOT my favorite trick and I have not taught my dogs to do this. Most dogs carry 60-85% of their weight forward on their shoulders so my preference is to teach tricks that teach the dog to distribute weight more to the rear and “relieve” the shoulders from added stress. I also see many people doing this with their dog’s front feet on a slippery surface. Shoulders are VERY fragile joints and especially with a performance dog, I don’t take any chances. (other concerns, neck and mid back)
2. Stand on hind feet and lower to a sit pretty, I do teach my dogs to do this one but kind of in reverse. It takes strong muscles in the core and rear legs to pull off this trick. The big thing here again is repetition, the surface you are on and the speed in which you do it. I do NOT encourage any kind of “hopping” on rear legs due to the added stress to the knees. Walking on hind legs is OK as long as they are on sure ground and the speed in controlled.There are cases in which this trick (or tricks like it) has real benefits. My dog Riley had an issue with his hocks after taking a break and then restarting agility training. We spent a period of time working on range of motion, cold water therapy and strengthening exercises to improve his strength and flexibility. I then taught Riley to sit up (sit pretty) and then stand on his hind legs to strengthen and lengthen through is hocks. This exercise is used as part of our warm-up routine and we have not had any further issues.
I trained it this way, as a very slow controlled exercise:
Having said all that, our dogs can get easily injured in agility, hiking a trail, retrieving or just running out to go potty so it is our job to make the right decisions for our dogs. I often look at all the NEW (and old) tricks people are teaching and I modify them to be “safer” for my dogs and client dogs. I am very cautious with “repetitive” training to make sure it is doing my dog good and not encouraging poor posture, wrong muscle use or stress on a particular joint. My rule of thumb is to set a timer (we all have them on our handy smart phones) for 5 -10 min max and during that 5-10 minutes I may work on three different tricks or more. When the timer goes off, we are done, no matter where we are in the process. I find that tricks are trained way faster in this manner than spending more time and more repetition per session.
However shocking it may be, (grin) concentrating on tricks and exercises that make my dogs strong with better weight distribution, is where my focus is in everything we do.
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF
K9 Fitness Coach
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Soft tissue injury is the most common injury in performance dogs and it is one of the hardest injuries to pin point or diagnose. If your dog has a suspected soft tissue injury, see a veterinarian that specializes in working with performance dogs. Most “regular” veterinarians won't see the subtle changes in gait and function that affect performance dogs nor will they understand the stress put on the dog’s body during canine performance sports. A canine rehabilitation expert will diagnose the problem, prescribe exercises to improve function, prescribe anti-inflammatories and monitor progress determining when it is safe to return to performance. An experts will tell you if surgery is needed and can refer you to known specialists in the field.
Frustrated handlers leave their home town veterinary offices with anti-inflammatories and prescribed rest, but without a definitive diagnosis. Diagnosing soft tissue injury in a performance dog is just not something they see on a regular basis. Similarly, your “family doctor’s” purpose is to diagnose illness but he would refer you to a sports medicine doctor for an injury to your knee, or a podiatrist for a foot injury. In addition, “function” for a pet dog differs quite a bit than that for a performance dog, as are the possibilities of re-injury. Performance dog owners have much higher expectations for mobility than that of pet dog owners. It is truly important that the professional helping you has a good understanding of the sport you are involved in and your level of participation.
Some of the signs of soft tissue injury can be limping, subtle offloading of weight, changes in gait (pacing, rather than trotting), knocking bars, head bobbing, refusing obstacles or refusing turns. These symptoms are a dog’s body responding to discomfort or pain. Masking that discomfort with pain meds, is only a band-aid and leaves the dog open to increasing the severity of the injury, if normal activity or performance is continued. Rest and rehabilitation exercises can regain function, muscle tone, and help the dog to efficiently utilize the limb or body part that was previously injured. Rest and anti-inflammatory medications are not always enough, especially when we ask our dogs to do extraordinary activities.
Keep in mind, small injuries left untreated, can turn in to larger more complicated injuries over time. Signs of smaller injuries may come and go before the injury reaches a point where it's obvious to anyone. Learn how to watch your dog move so changes are easy for you to recognize. High drive dogs often show very subtle signs of injury and the dog’s owner needs to be familiar with their movement to see small inconsistencies in gait, flexibility or function. Participating in a strength and flexibility program will teach you what is normal for your dog and make you more aware of his overall physical health. Changes of range of motion during stretching, noticeable signs of loss of strength, and refusing exercises are all signs of soreness or pain.
If you have ever pulled a muscle in your lower leg or wrenched your neck and tried to “power through” or ignore it, you know that often those smaller injuries become more severe. If you think your dog has a soft tissue injury, do not allow them to “power through” with pain meds. It's agonizing for many sport dog handlers to take breaks but if they don’t, they may end up with a much bigger injury to their dog, a continued decrease level of performance and MORE time off than originally required. It's important to understand that returning to performance should be gradual. Of course how fast your dog returns to activity depends on the severity of injury, how quickly the injury heals and how the dog responds to strength and function exercises.
K9 Fitness Coach
Bobbie Lyons, CCFT, KPA CPT