Canine Stretch Exercises for Physical Health.

Studies have found that baited stretches in horses, often known as carrot stretches, can reduce the incidence of back pain and help to rehabilitate a horse that has been suffering from back pain. The same has been found in humans and dogs.

The baited stretches work a bit like Pilates does in humans, the body is gently stretched to activate the long muscles of the back and core muscles of the stomach, without forcing them or causing strain to the joints. Helping to strengthen and tone these muscles, thus reducing strain and asymmetry.
This form of stretching is called active stretching, where the stretch occurs within a movement, rather than holding the dogs’ body in a stretch. Active stretching has proven, in both human and animal sport, to increase power and acceleration. So is great for those competing in agility or flyball. Passive stretching, where the handler holds the dogs legs in a stretch, immediately before training and competing actually decreases performance.
Using a piece of food or a treat move the dog’s head around to his side, while his feet stay where they are! Start slowly and only move the treat a small distance to let the dog get the idea that he needs to keep his feet still, if he moves his feet, be persistent, but don’t hand over the reward until the dog is in the desired position. This may take some patience to begin with, but the dog will soon get the idea. Remember to reward the smallest try and start off slowly. The following photos show me teaching this method to a family member’s dog, Bindi.

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1. Getting the idea of moving her head with her feet still

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2. Moving the head to the side while keeping the feet still.

Bindi is starting to get the idea in the second photo, which didn’t take very long at all. To progress this exercise continue to move the treat further towards the flank as the dog becomes more flexible. I left this session here because she had got the idea, she is young and it was her first session. Don’t forget to repeat this exercise to both sides.

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Next, move the dog’s head between his front legs, by getting his nose to follow a treat. Again, start slowly, you can see the nice stretch over Bindis back, eventually you would aim for her to stretch her head between her front legs and take the treat from behind her front feet.

Ask your dog to stand with his front legs on top of a box, to stretch the back and hind leg muscles. This gives nice stretch over the hind legs. Obviously if you have a small dog, then a smaller step would be needed, make sure the dog is not straining to reach the raised platform, whatever you may be using, also make sure the footing is good and will not cause the dog to slip off.

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Finally, teaching or encouraging your dog to “play bow” on command helps to stretch the shoulder, triceps and back muscles. Bindi shows the early stages of this, aim to make the forequarters lower than the hindquarters in true “playbow” pose, but again, do this slowly over time.

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Repeat these exercises frequently, 2-3 times a week should be plenty, once your dog is proficient at these, then the frequency can be dropped back to once a week.
Look after your back whilst doing this too, you can see that I have my knees bent and back relatively straight to prevent me putting too much strain on my lower back.

And finally… try not to be gulted into just handing over the treats!

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Preventing injuries in agility dogs

Regardless of whether you train for fun, fitness or competition, having your dog pick up an injury can be devastating.  Vets have recently become increasingly concerned about the number of dogs injured whilst training and competing in dog sports.

Careful management of your beloved pet can make all the difference with regards to lowering the risk of becoming injured.

Recent studies have found that keeping your dog within a healthy weight for its breed, height and age is the biggest factor for preventing injuries, especially concussion injuries and the early onset of conditions such as arthritis.

Research into agility has found that  the most common injuries are soft tissue sprains and strains.  A recent survey found that although the majority of competing dogs were uninjured, 33% of dogs in training had suffered an injury, while 58% of those injuries had occurred at a competition.  The shoulders were most commonly injured, followed by the back, stifle (knee), thigh, hip and toes.  The majority of injuries occurred on the A-frame, dogwalk or bar jump.  Training in Flyball on rubber matting was associated with an increased likelihood of arthritis, foot pad and dew claw injuries than those trained on grass, this would probably be similar for agility training, although no studies have looked at training on an equestrian sand surface, where many clubs often train.

If your dog becomes injured STOP.  Do not continue training or competing and seek help from your vet.  Helpful first aid is that anything that feels hot or warmer than usual to the touch should have an ice pack placed against it.  If it is in an area where the dog has less, or thin fur then wrap the ice pack in a flannel to prevent ice burns on the skin.  Try to hold it there for as long as the dog will allow, but no longer than 20 minutes at a time.  Repeat this several times a day until you can see your vet.

There are often signs before an injury happens that owners should pay attention to.  Slower than usual times, knocking poles, slower through the weave or corners are all signs that your dog may not be quite comfortable, or may have a muscle pull or strain.

If your dog is lame, then you need to speak to your vet and get proper treatment for the lameness.  Sometimes your vet may not be able to pinpoint a reason for why your dogs performance has decreased, especially if your dog is not actually lame, under these circumstances you may need to have your dog checked over by a therapist.  Therapists, such as McTimoney therapists, can help to alleviate tight muscles, which in turn can help prevent strain on tendons.  Tendons are more likely to be injured if the muscle associated with it is tight.  Treatment can help increase performance and prevent injury.  The therapist can advise on suitable exercises to help strengthen any weak muscles, this will help improve performance, prevent injury and allow your dog to continue enjoying agility for many years.  Regular treatment, say at the beginning or end of the indoor season, can help to spot any injuries or tight muscles before they prevent the dog from competing.

Following a suitable warm up and cool down routine will dramatically help lower the odds of picking up and injury, as will paying attention to your dogs overall fitness and energy levels, if your dog seems to have less energy than usual it may be necessary to speak to a qualified nutirtionist, veterinary nurse or vet about what to feed to increase vitality or control weight.

Guide to warming up your dog for competition or training

Whatever discipline you compete in or even if your dog is a working dog, the warm up is one of the most important factors in keeping your dog sound for the long term and injury free.  I would advise warming up even when training, whether you are practicing speed and obstacle skills or improving general behaviour training, the warm up will help your dog stay focussed and limber.  Warm up and cool down before and after every training session and competition, even if you are just training in your garden.

More than one study has looked at the effects of the warm up on injury rates, regardless of the sport and has found that dogs need to be warmed up for at least 9 minutes, otherwise muscle injuries are commonplace.

Start by brisk walking for 2 minutes, then trotting your dog for a few minutes (about 3 minutes) then introduce some cantering for a minute or 2, finally introduce some low jumps (for flyball and agility).

Include some active stretches after this, instead of holding your dog in a stretch, active stretching has proven, in both human and animal sport, to increase power and acceleration, while passive stretching, where the handler holds the dogs legs in a stretch, immediately before training and competing actually decreases performance.  Using a baited stretch, where a piece of food is used to move the dogs head around to his flank, while his feet stay where they are!  Move the dogs head between his front legs, by getting his nose to follow a treat, repeat on the other side. Active stretching prevents the muscles from being overstretched before strenuous exercise. Ask your dog to stand with his front legs on top of a box, to stretch the back and hind leg muscles. Teaching or encouraging your dog to “play bow” on command helps to stretch the shoulder, triceps and back muscles.

Finally at the end of the session remember to cool down effectively, 10 to 25 minutes of walking, start at a fast walk, then gradually change to a slower pace.