In the short 8 weeks I have had my new puppy, “Drama”, he has traveled to Montana, California and northern Washington with me learning how to be a good traveler and my training partner. WOW I can’t believe how much we have accomplished in 8 short weeks.
Drama now understands the clicker and how to offer behaviors. He also comes when I call him, looks for me when I am behind him and checks in regularly when free in the yard. I attribute all this to the time we have spent learning about each other, learning from each other and developing our relationship while training useful behaviors that prepare him for a life in the sport of agility.
Below is a progression of behaviors that can be done to improve your puppy’s body awareness. You can see by watching the videos that my puppy has learned a lot about his body in a short period of time and at a very young age.
Benefits of teaching a performance puppy body awareness exercises at an early age are listed below:
• good foundation of movement
• coordination and stability
• dog/human bond
Short sessions several times a day, about every other day when life permits is IMO, the very best way to train. By short I mean, put 10 pieces of kibble in your hand and train until those 10 pieces are gone. Resist the urge to grab another handful – short sessions will get you to your desired goal quicker.
Here is a log of what we have been up to. I hope you enjoy our journey as much as we have
Between 9 weeks and 12 weeks old Drama learned
1. surface training over many obstacles
2. independent back up using a channel
4. short walking and trotting on a treadmill
At 13-14 weeks old Drama learned:
1. an independent back up without a channel.
2. Backing up a board
3. climbing up a steep incline
4. balance on same side feet
5. core muscle engagement
6. lateral shoulder stability
Now at 15 weeks old, Drama has learned all four feet on the FitPAWS Paw Pods.
These are the types of things you can do with your puppy to build a relationship, to teach your puppy about his body and to prepare him for a life training and competing in canine performance sports.
Bobbie Lyons, Pawsitive Performance
One of my favorite topics to teach dog owners is “focus and self-control” and it goes hand in hand with K9 conditioning. Slow and controlled movements in specific positions cannot be obtained if your dog is over threshold. Learning to work with a dog under threshold is a puzzle. It is a truly rewarding experience to help a handler see that their dog is able to work under threshold by making a few adjustments to their own movements, props (such as food or toys) and tone of voice.
A few weeks ago while teaching a workshop and I saw a dog that was completely over threshold the minute he came into the room – not focused on the owner, completely focused on the other dogs, at the end of the leash and he wanted ACTION. The owner was being pulled here and there and was trying to get the dog’s attention. I am immediately drawn to this dog as I love a challenge. I continued to teach and watched the handler try to focus the dog without treats or toys with no success. I then went to the handler and asked if the dog liked toys or treats. The answer was “yes” – BINGO. I knew right then I could show this handler a different way to work with his dog. I had a tug in one hand and a few treats in the other. In just a few minutes I was able to get the dog to focus on me – reward alternating between treats and tugging. I got much calmer movement from the dog, a sit stay, and an offering of behavior. Now this isn’t a ‘fix all’ it was a brief moment in time and I used ONE puzzle piece and found a match. Could have easily gone the other way and then I would have had to look for a different clue fit the pieces together.
A more personal example:
I see many handlers (and I was one of them) trying to match their dog’s energy with their own. It is an important lesson to slow down with these dogs and teach them that life is not always full of “action”. When I got Riley at 5.5 mo old he was easily over threshold at the site of other dogs, a toy, or any sort of fun. It was a true challenge to get him to focus and have any ability to settle. I remember being in a “manners class” where I basically tugged with him the entire time to keep his focus on me….hmmm was he focused on me or focused on the tug? What I learned is that moving slow, talking quietly and a tug/release game was very effective in getting my dog to focus on me and what I was asking of him. These were the puzzle pieces I needed to make our training more effective and rewarding. I can now train almost anything with a tug in my hand, but it took work, understanding, and time to try different puzzle pieces until it all came together.
Telling students to SLOW DOWN, giving commands in a soft voice, no cheerleading and reward sparingly has become a daily request of those handlers with dogs who are easily over excited. That said, I truly believe that there is a time for a super happy voice, such as when working with a softer dog that needs more encouragement. But if your dog is easily over threshold, then they do not need that type of inspiration to work and learn. In fact it can hinder the process.
Whether working with my own dogs or a client dog it is truly rewarding to find those puzzle pieces that improve the training process. The examples above will not work for every dog but there are many other things to try. For some dogs food is a super high motivator, for others food will put them over threshold or the dog will not even want food if easily stressed. The same goes for a squeaky toy or a tug toy. For some these tools may work great for focus and for others it will impede or just not improve the process.
There is not a one size fits all answer, that is what makes finding the puzzle pieces so rewarding. My intention in writing this blog is to just encourage those of you that have highly excitable dogs to slow down, take a look and see where the puzzle pieces fit together. This step can teach you so much about your dog and it will improve the success rate of your training as well as improve the relationship between you and your dog.
Recently I wrote about the team approach to K9 Fitness and how collaboration between professionals in the veterinary, rehabilitation and fitness fields are important. Because I refer clients regularly for diagnostics and diagnosis, I receive referrals from those professionals when no discernible problem exists, the dog is released to normal activity or a strength or training issue is discovered.
A few months ago, a local veterinarian referred a dog and handler to me for strength and flexibility training. The dog was brought to their veterinary clinic due to poor performance on the agility course – knocking bars, occasionally popping out of weave poles and taking wider right turns especially over jumps. Upon palpation the veterinarian did not find anything remarkable and the owner did not seek further diagnostics because nothing was “broken.” The veterinarian referred the dog to me assuming it was a strength or training issue.
When you know your dog is off, and your veterinarian can't find anything medically wrong, a good solution can often be strength and body awareness training so the dog can figure out how to best use his body.
For purposes of this blog post, I will call the dog Bodi. Bodi is a five-year-old Border Collie. The owner came to me with the same complaints as listed above and unsure what to do or where to go. The dog is the handler’s beloved agility partner and the thought of not being able to continue training with this dog was overwhelming. We talked about progression of jump training, weaves and turns and I had the handler send me agility video of her dog from before and after the issues started. Based on the information provided, and my own personal agility training, it appeared that she had done all the correct training to achieve proper jumping, turning and weave pole movement necessary to compete in agility. However, there was a definite change in his performance.
I also asked the handler if she, personally, had had any physical changes – such as a pulled muscle, tight muscles in her legs, injured toe, increased weight or anything else that would affect her movement. There was nothing that she could think of. There were also no noticeable changes in the handler when reviewing the agility videos.
After touching Bodi from head to toe, and observing him move and perform a few exercises, I began to design a plan to improve weight distribution, coordination, flexibility and strength. My program is generally designed to help a dog use it’s body efficiently which typically results in improved performance. The owner was asked by the veterinarian to take a 4-week break from agility (just be safe) and perform very specific strength and flexibility exercises (suggested by me) three to four times a week. Daily, walks were recommended on leash for 30-40 minutes, with 10 minutes of off-leash time without other dogs to chase for the same 4-week period. After 4 weeks if symptoms did not return, Bodi was released to all normal activity and a gradual return to performance.
I tend to apply a very cautious approach and ask my clients to spend a bit more time on strength and body awareness before returning to full activity just to make sure that we aren’t pushing too quickly. In this case, the handler and I met every three weeks, reviewed the previous exercise plan and Bodi’s progress then designed a new plan increasing the difficulty of the exercises and off-leash time. Each plan was emailed to the veterinarian for review and approval. After several weeks of fitness training, we worked together to design a plan for a gradual approach to full height agility jumps and obstacles, while continuing the strength and flexibility program. The goal was to progress to full agility courses without hesitation or return of symptoms.
After a couple months of helping Bodi to understand his body, improve balance and flexibility, he returned to agility without knocked bars and with fast and efficient weave poles. We are still working on tighter right turns. Even with the wider turns, his yards per second improved and he took 1st place in jumpers and 2nd place in his standard run. Using a cautious approach to K9 Fitness, we worked together to improve body awareness, strength and weight distribution, which improved Bodi’s performance. To say we are both thrilled with his improvements would be an understatement.
Bodi has since participated in several agility trials over several months without having his previous symptoms return. We continue to increase the difficulty of his fitness program and regularly work on his flexibility and turning power to the right.
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF
Online classes enroll 9/9 at HERE
K9FITbone for K9Fitness, K9 Cond II, Performance Dog and Rehab self guided classes.
It can be a challenge to design a conditioning program for sprint activities that will enhance performance, keep your dog’s chances of injury to a minimum and target the proper muscles groups.
What does Sprint mean: To move rapidly or at top speed for a brief period
Sprint athletes rely on anaerobic activities that build on the explosive muscles fibers used for rapid movement. Long distance runners rely on aerobic activities to maintain activity for long periods of time. These same theories apply to our canine athletes.
Just for clarification: Endurance is to exert and remain active for a long periods of time (such as sled dog, ski joring, running long distances)
K9 Sports that require sprinting are agility, flyball, lure coursing and treibball just to name a few. Sprint athletes require different conditioning programs than endurance athletes. It has been proven that improved strength and weight distribution will improve speed and accuracy in movement. Using the dog’s own body weight as resistance and designing a program using balance equipment and a dog treadmill can make a very comprehensive anaerobic conditioning plan. Using balance training to strengthen the core muscle group is important because a dog with a strong core will use less energy, have support for the spine and will move more efficiently.
Short bursts of very high intensity exercises using a DogTread treadmill is an effective way to target specific muscles groups and challenge your dog's muscles to improve strength. The video below gives you a quick idea of what can be done with a treadmill made for dogs.
Challenging your dog’s muscles with exercises using FitPAWS balance equipment will improve strength, body awareness and coordination. See photos above and do your research. Get guidance on exercises and body positions that best suit your dog and the sport you are involved in. Body position, duration and degree of challenge should be considered.
Keep in mind that human treadmills are not long enough for most dogs over 30 lbs. If purchasing a DogTread treadmill made for dogs consider your dog’s leg and stride length when ordering. I always recommend the longer tread length if there is any question about whether or not the tread is long enough. Make sure you are looking at the TREAD length or RUN SURFACE not the full length of the machine.
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF
I have been thinking a lot lately about “exercises progression”. In the human world, we know that we can’t go to the gym and do the same amount of repetitions with the same weight every time and improve over all strength and body composition. We know that number of repetitions and/or the amount of weight needs to increase to reach your strength or muscles definition goals. The same rules apply to our canine athletes.
There needs to be a progression to keep challenging a dog’s muscles. For instance, if you train your dog a folding down on the flat or on an aerobic bench, it teaches the dog to engage their core, hips and rear legs in the movement, which improves body awareness, strength and coordination. Where as if the dog sits then moves to a down, they are really relying only on their shoulders.
Now if you were to ask the same dog who now understands how to do a fold down to do it with front feet elevated on a phone book or low stool, then it helps shift more weight to the dogs rear and core muscle group.
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Teaching a puppy body awareness and weight distribution exercises at an early age helps the puppy grow into a confident, well balanced and coordinated dog. I start teaching my clients these types of exercises when their puppies are just 8 -12 weeks old. I adjust duration of exercise or repetitions to the age, ability and attention span of the puppy I am working with and I mix in PLAY as much as possible during the sessions.
Body awareness programs for puppies teach them how to learn through shaping and luring. It will also increases the human/dog bond. Many exercises can be shaped as independent movements but some exercises require you to physically maneuver your dog to achieve the correct position. Handling all body parts of your puppy at an early age helps them to be more tolerant of it as they grow older. This is important for nail trimmings, grooming and trips to the vet.
I focus on exercises that require balance and coordination but do not over stress the joints at an early age. I am slow and careful with puppies. Puppies get a lot of jumping, pivoting and multi-directional balance in everyday life — as they run around the back yard and play with pack mates.
When performing exercise with puppies, I carefully watch for movements that keep the knees in line with the hips as much as the puppy’s conformation allows. I also watch for good posture, top-line angles and head position.
As previously mentioned in a earlier blog, I do not recommend multi-directional wobble boards or balance discs for sustained exercises for puppies because when puppies, and some older dogs, mount these pieces of equipment their rear legs spread wide which can put unnecessary pressure on the joints. My preference is to teach the puppy body awareness and coordination on the flat first. Once the dog can obtain the correct position on the flat, then I add unstable FitPAWS equipment such as rocker boards, peanuts, Fitbones, and paw pods that improve proper weight distribution while keeping the body in alignment. I suggest putting the donut holder under the wobble board which allows it to jiggle but not to rock. When the dog has well developed muscles and bones (at about age 12 months) then add sustained exercises on wobble boards and balance discs.
I also like surface training a puppy with a deflated large balance discs put on top of the rocker board so you get unstable and a different surface. Other options would be the deflated Fitpaws balance disc on top of the peanuts, donut, and under caveletti poles.
I feel it is very important to watch the amount of repetition done in any routine. Set a time limit and stick to it, and watch your puppy’s posture, topline angle, rear leg and head position to make sure you are encouraging good weight distribution, posture and alignment.
Early Puppy Development:
Please note: Putting balance discs, and wobble boards in whelling boxes for surface discrimination exposure is perfectly fine. The puppies generally are walking over or laying on these pieces if equipment, they are not doing sustained exercises or holding sustained positions.
My concerns are for the puppy after arriving at its forever home. New puppy owners get over excited about having a puppy that they tend to start training tricks right away. Why not, there are so many options these days to help teach your puppy how to learn. Where the problem lies in the repetition involved in training new exercises and positions. We are human and we get excited and 15 min can go by quickly and the number of repetitions that can be done in 5-15 minutes is astounding.
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF Ph. 503-329-1235
Targeted Conditioning Programs for K9 Athletes: Private Lessons, Online Classes, & Workshops
Online Classroom Website (NOTE: enrollment 9/9/2014 –New classes will be offered):
Do you practice doubles, triples and spread jumps regularly???
Many instructors don’t set these jumps up due to time constraints. My advice, show up early and lend a hand. This could be the few minutes every week that will save your dog from injury. When you undertrain these jumps, a dog will often fling themselves over as a last ditch effort to clear the jump or will crash through it not realizing the need for extension. This is when injury can happen.
Doubles, triples and spread jumps are commonly the culprit for Iliopsoas muscle strains or tears when the dog has NOT been exposed to this type of extension work on a regular basis. This injury can be a three to six month recovery and some dogs have intermittent lameness or performance issues for months, even years after the handler thought their dog had recovered. Many competitors put their dog back in competition too soon and then the dog re-injures the muscles before they have had time to fully repair.
Depending on the dog’s structure and jump style the dog will learn to take these jumps with nice extension but they do need practice. When a dog “over-extends” (rear comes up higher than lower back) the hip flexor muscles (Psoas) become over stretched causing injury. This can be painful for the dog. These types of soft tissue injuries are hard to diagnose and take a long time to heal.
Finding a Veterinarian that has experience diagnosing soft tissue injuries is key. X-rays will not show soft tissue injury and you need a Vet that knows how to palpitate the dog correctly to diagnose without spending the dollars on an MRI. There are some great treatments available such as cold laser for pain management and shock wave therapy which also reduces pain and stimulates healing.
I hope this helps you understand the need to train double, triples and spread jumps regularly.
Here are some photos of exercises you might do to strengthen the Psoas muscles. If you are interested in guidance, please see my classes listed below or email me.
Bobbie Lyons, Cert CF
My Performance Puppy and K9 Conditioning class will give you the foundation you need to build a conditioning program designed specific to you and your dog's needs. Self guided rehab classes also available: The Enigma of the Iliopsoas (Hip flexor injury) and Balance Your Blades (shoulder injury) Sign up today!
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.
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.
Questions and comments are always welcome
· Using a Dog Tread Treadmill for sustained trotting to build endurance
· Cavaletti training – spacing between the poles and height of poles are very specific for improving gait – forelimb and hindlimb reach.
· Swimming your dog, straight, and turning in both directions and using all four limbs
· Flexibility training – stretching
It is our job as handlers to go the “extra mile” and learn how to design a program for our canine athletes. If you are unsure of what to do, seek advice from someone who knows.
Check out my online classes and website to find out more about K9 Conditioning and how I can help you design a program for your dog. I offer in person private lessons AND online private lessons through video exchange. Contact me today to learn more.
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
1. Balance Your Blades – Understanding Shoulder Injury in Performance DogsEnrollment begins 12/4/2013 for current students, open enrollment begins 12/5/2013 For more information and registration click HERE
2. The Enigma of the Iliopsoas class – Self Guided – open for enrollment and more information here HERE
3. K9 Conditioning I &II enrolls January 2, 2014 – Participant and Spectators. For more information click HERE MARK YOUR CALENDAR