Proper conditioning doesn’t just make your dog stronger, it makes your dog more sensitive to the amount of muscle contraction necessary to move most efficiently. Without conditioning, your dog will only be able to perform as well as they’ve learned to while participating in their sport or life activity. Some dogs (and people) do this very well. They are referred to as natural athletes.
However, it would be naïve to think that even a physically gifted dog couldn’t improve upon their naturally abilities through conditioning. Gifted or not, they only execute the movements necessary to accomplish their goal. This makes them weak in areas that aren’t used often and potentially damaged in areas that are used over and over. Additionally, due to the fact that participation in sport and life requires unpredictable and uncontrolled movements, a dog can only develop the muscle strength for maximum function by way of the precision, safety and effectiveness of a conditioning program.
With that in mind let’s look at conditioning the forelimbs to improve the performance of our canine athlete or active companion.
When your dog’s forelimbs strike the ground trotting, running or landing, a number of muscles help stabilize the limbs, transfer energy and control the continued movement. Forelimb extensor muscles like the triceps for example, only contract the amount necessary to stabilize forelimb bend and enable effective movement across any terrain.
Your dog’s ability to negotiate the amount of contraction of the extensor muscles while running or landing will directly effect their performance and their ability to stay safe. Think about it like a skier doing moguls. Too much give in the legs would lead to falling, too much stiffness would lead to an inability to properly adjust to the moguls. This also applies to your dog when he takes obstacles, runs in a field trial, hits a flyball box, or enjoys an active hike. The most effective way to teach your dog how to properly engage their muscles is with specific controlled exercises that include technical variations that mimic real world scenarios. Don’t confuse poor technique with technical variations variation. You must build a strong foundation of correct form and technique prior to implementing any variations.
There are a variety of canine conditioning exercises to train your dog’s forelimbs. For example, Rue is demonstrating a standing position on the stability equipment. If you notice, her hindlimbs are raised, and are extended out past her hips. This will cause more weight to shift to her forelimbs and increase the amount of stabilization effort. It will also require more core strength as the hindlimbs are less active in supporting the body. You can have your dog shift their weight back and forth as a great warm up before continuing with more difficult forelimb strengthening exercises.
To help your dog develop greater strength of their forelimb extensor muscles, such as the triceps, we’re going to focus on the “push up”. And as with any conditioning exercise, you need a multitude of technical variations in order to adequately re-create the dynamic nature of sport.
The first variation of a “push-up” position is pictured here. Notice the hindlimbs are still raised and behind the hips. This will naturally shift the weight forward increasing the amount of load on the forelimbs during the push up. The forelimb position will strengthen both the shoulder joint, and then extensors of the forelimbs fairly equally. From here, variations in the stability equipment, length of time and body angle will help your dog develop the sensitivity to dictate the amount of muscle contraction needed.
This next variation of the “push up” focuses a little more on strengthening the triceps, the primary muscle involved in straightening the forelimb. You’ll notice that with this “push up” position, Rue’s hindlimbs are lower and closer to her hips, and her weight is shifted more toward her hind. As well, her elbows are closer to the ground and her forelimbs are compressed down, this helps stress the triceps more than the shoulder. In addition, I hold the treat low, and lure her forward slightly with small movements to keep her working while in the “push up” position. This better simulates the constant changes in surface and the contractile force necessary of a given movement in sport. (On a side note, there’s more of a curve in her spine for this variation so it should be avoided for dogs with back issues.)
In this last variation of the “push up” Rue’s forelimbs are not poorly aligned. I’ve intentionally worked to achieve this position. Our focus is on recreating the natural landing position Lev demonstrated in the a-frame photo. You cannot expect to see real world results with a conditioning program, if you don’t incorporate technical variations that include the actual positions your dog does naturally (or as a result of your request) while performing their sport or activity. As well, when implementing this type of technical variation, in order to maintain a balanced strength exercise you must switch feet.
These are by no means the only 3 “push up” positions. Necessary technical variations include changes in body angle, stability equipment, range of motion, limb position & separation, elevation, rotation, planes, resistance, the list goes on and on. These variations should not be random and they should be used to excuse poor technique. They must be routinely applied to specific properly executed exercises as part of a canine fitness program or you risk wasting your time, or even worse, injuring your dog.
As always, it is best to seek instruction from a veterinary or canine conditioning professional before starting a conditioning program with your dog. And don’t forget to sign up in order to be notified as to when our next blog post is out.