How to Condition Your Canine Athlete Like a Pro : Expert Advice

canine conditioning for sporty dogs

Conditioning your dog for sporting activities can be a great way to keep them healthy, get their energy out, and have fun. Conditioning also helps dogs recover after injury or surgery by reducing stress on the body during rehabilitation. 

In this article, we will teach you how to condition your canine athlete with these easy-to-follow exercises. You’ll learn about warm-up and cool down, where they should exercise, stretching exercises, balance exercises and core strength training – all of which are important components of conditioning for different canine sports such as agility, canicross, flyball and disc dog. 

We’ll also discuss what is meant by “active recovery” day (or rest days) before starting a new sport so that your pet is ready to go!

What is the goal of conditioning a dog for sporting activities
?

The ultimate goal of conditioning our dog is to prevent injuries, but along the way, we will also improve our dog’s fitness and performance, bringing them to their peak.   

Having a well-conditioned dog opens up the doors to sporting activities for you and your dog.  Without a good level of conditioning, our dogs would struggle to train and compete regularly, and we run the risk of our dogs getting injured or not being able to complete the activities fully.  

How to condition your dog for sporting activities


What to Know Before You Start

Before we get started with any dog sports, there are a few quick checks we can do to make sure our dogs are ready to get started:

  1. They don’t have any underlying injuries or illnesses such as arthritis, hip and elbow dysplasia.
  2. You are prepared to develop a conditioning plan which, seeing as you’re reading this, I think you’ve got this one covered.
  3. They’re old enough to get started. Here’s a little guide to help you know what your puppy can do:
  • 6-8mth old- begin some low impact foundation training without equipment or tight turns
  • 9-12mth old- begin some more foundation training introducing low impact equipment such as jump wings and tunnels 
  • 12mth+- Begin full training in small dogs 
  • 18mth+- Start full training in larger breeds 

Warm-Up and Cool-Down

Warm-ups and cool-downs are your number 1 priority if you want to prevent injuries in your dogs.

Having a consistent warm-up and cool-down routine prepares your dog for activity by increasing their heart rate, which improves blood flow to their muscles.  This ensures that there are all the nutrients and oxygen needed for your dog’s muscles to perform.  

Our cool-downs work in reverse. They help to flush any toxins from your dog’s muscles and ensure they don’t get stiff after training.  

There are five steps to the perfect warm-up and cool-down routine:

Warm-up:

  1. Massage: Effleurage and percussive to the whole body to improve blood flow. 
  2. Walking: To improve the range of motion (ROM) of all of your dog’s joints. To make this even more effective, you can add in some gentle turns and stops and starts.   
  3. Running: to further increase blood flow, ROM and muscle flexibility.  
  4. Tricks: Such as sit to stands, turns, spins and paws to improve muscle engagement.
  5. Discipline: Specify activities to let your dog know what to expect. 

Cool-down:

  1. Reward: To let your dog know they’ve finished. 
  2. Running: To slowly decrease heart rate.
  3. Walking: To ensure all muscles are gently stretched out.
  4. Stretching: This should be self-stretching (walking, spins, paw, bow etc.) unless your vet/vet physio has shown you specific stretches for your dog.
  5. Massage: Just effleurage this time.  

Where to Exercise

If you’re new to conditioning exercises, the best place to get started is on your dogs walks; this makes sure that they are warmed up and makes it easy for you to remember to do them.  But any non-slip surface will do.  

Stretching Exercises

Self-stretching exercises can be done daily to help increase your dog’s flexibility.  Formal stretching exercises should be done as your vet/vet physio has advised and will be specific to your pet.  

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Some self-stretching exercises you can use are: spins to stretch the muscles on either side of your dog’s spine, Paw, bow and up on hind legs to stretch your dogs legs.

Weaving, Figure Eights and Circles

These exercises are primarily used to improve our dogs ROM in both their limbs and their spine.  

If you haven’t done these before, start with weaving in and out of trees or cones around 6ft apart.  Then build up to figure 8’s and circles to increase the degree of flexion in the spine and the length of your dog’s stride on the limbs that are on the outside of the circle.  

Because we are working the outside of our dog’s body in these exercises, you must do these exercises on both the left and right.  

Core strength

Core exercises include anything that causes our dogs to engage their core, i.e. anything that challenges their balance.  There are a number of different exercises you can choose here including:

  1. Balance exercises or weight shifting exercises.
  2. Weaving, figure 8’s and circles.
  3. Cavalletti or pole work.
  4. Tricks- such as sit, down, stand, jump, paw, beg, spin.
  5. Hydrotherapy- any work in water.  
canine conditioning for sporting dogs 2
Balance Exercises for Core Strength

Balance Exercises

Balance exercises or weight shifting exercises challenge our dog’s balance and therefore force them to engage their core, making them one of the simplest yet most effective core exercises and a must for any conditioning program.  

You should always start these exercises on the floor but as your dog progresses you can perform them on pods, wobble boards or cushions.  

Cavaletti

Cavaletti or pole work exercises are a great all-around exercise that works not only your dog’s core but also all their limb muscles and limb ROM.  

If you want to get started with cavaletti, always start with just one pole on the ground.  As your dog gets better, you can begin to add in extra poles and then even begin raising them one side at a time (remember to always keep them below hock height).  

canine athlete conditioning pole work
Cavaletti or pole work exercises are a great all-around exercise.

Tricks

Trick training plays a significant role in our dog’s conditioning programs as it allows them not only to self stretch and improve ROM, but also to challenge our dog’s muscle mass and strength.  

Some useful tricks to get you started are:

  1. Bow, where your dog lowers your forelimbs to the ground but remains standing with their hindlimbs.  This stretches your dog’s limb and back muscles.  
  2. Paw,  in both the sit and stand position improves your dog’s fore and hindlimb ROM and muscle mass.  
  3. Sit and down to stands improve your dog’s core and limb muscle mass and well as improving ROM, especially in the down, but only if your dog performs these correctly.  The correct way to perform these is to ensure your dog stays square and pushes up from the hindlimbs and does not move forward.   

Conditioning for different canine sports

Agility

Agility is an all-around sport and as such your dog needs an all-around conditioning program including core, limb and ROM exercises.   

I recommend you get started with some balance exercises, cavaletti and weaving.

Flyball

Flyball focuses on jumps in straight lines with a box turn so again you need to focus on your dogs all-around conditioning (ROM, strength and core).  

I recommend you get started with balance exercises, cavaletti and weaving.

Disc Dog

Disc dog is a little different as it focuses mainly on straight movements and jumping.  Your main focus should be hindlimb muscle strength and core conditioning.  

I recommend you get started with tricks, balance exercises and hydrotherapy. 

Water Sports

I think it goes without saying that the best way to condition for water sports is hydrotherapy but land-based exercises that focus on your dog’s core and hindlimbs are also beneficial.  

I recommend you get started with balance exercises, hydrotherapy and tricks. 

Winter Sports

For winter sports your main focus should be your warm-up routine, but of course, you’ll want to incorporate some at-home conditioning to focus on core and limb ROM.  

I recommend you get started with tricks, balance exercises and warm-ups. 

Things you should know before starting any type of conditioning program with your pet 


There are a number of considerations before getting started with a conditioning program for your dog.  Here they are:

  1. Your dog should be fit and healthy.
  2. You should consult your vet and vet physio to make sure exercises are appropriate for your pet.
  3. You should have assessed your dog’s weaknesses before choosing the right exercises for your dog.
  4. Don’t try to do all these exercises just pick the ones that best suit your dog. 
  5. Be prepared to perform these daily or every other day. 

What is a Rest Day or Active Recovery Day?

A rest day or active recovery day in a fit and healthy sporting dog is a day in which they don’t train, compete or perform their fitness exercises. They most likely will still go on daily walks although these may also be shortened depending on the dog’s age and current fitness level.  

The risks associated with not conditioning a dog before participating in a sport

A dog that begins participating in a dog sport without any prior or ongoing conditioning will, at best, not be able to train and compete at their full potential and at worse, will develop a career-ending injury.  

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Conditioning should be an integral part of all dogs routine but even more so those that compete or train in dog sports. Conditioning ensures that our dogs are physically able to train.  

When we focus on exercises that improve ROM this ensures that our dogs have a reduced risk of developing arthritis, pulled muscles or strained tendons and ligaments.   

When we focus on core strengthening and engaging exercises this ensures that our dogs are aware of their bodies and are less likely to fall and suffer breaks or dislocations.  

When we focus on muscle mass and strength we ensure that our dog’s joints have stability reducing the risk of dislocations and arthritis.  

Why it’s important to consult with your veterinarian before starting any type of exercise routine for your pet

It’s so important to consult your veterinarian or veterinary physiotherapist before making any changes to your dog’s exercise routine. Even more so if they have had previous injuries or illnesses such as hip and elbow dysplasia, arthritis or even something as minor as a pulled nail.  

Contacting your vet and vet physio ensures that there are no underlying issues with your dog that may impact their ability and safety to complete any sport. These can be very minor issues that you may not have seen, but can have a huge impact on your dog’s future health. Even a small joint injury as a puppy can lead to severe arthritis later in life if not managed correctly.  

Don’t be worried about speaking with your vet. The chances are your pets are in perfect condition and ready to go, but better to be safe than sorry. This way you know you’ve done everything you can to protect your dog.  

Tips on how to keep your dog healthy and safe while participating in sporting activities

Your number one thing that you can do to keep your dog safe and healthy whilst participating in dog sports, is to seek out a professional dog trainer. They will help you train your dog from the foundations up to ensure that they are performing each sport safely. They will also be able to provide you with equipment that is up to current safety standards.  

You can also ensure that you are training on a non-slip surface, as this reduces the risk of your dog slipping or falling and injuring themselves.  

Once you’ve got a location with non-slip flooring, equipment that is up to current safety standards and a professional trainer it’s time to start looking at your warm-ups.  

Having a good consistent warm-up is one of the best ways to ensure that your dogs are prepared physically and therefore less likely to become injured during your training session. Long-term having a conditioning program for your plan which is reassessed each month and completed each day or every other day is going to not only give your dog the best chance of success but also ensure they are in peak physical condition and therefore less likely to suffer an injury.  

Resources 

For more information about conditioning dogs for specific sports and general information about canine fitness programs
 check out these articles:

If you are interested in a course:

Other useful website resources:

About the Author:

Zoe Hindle from Fit-Pet Physio, MSc Veterinary Physiotherapy MNAVP  

Zoe is a Veterinary Physiotherapist at Fit-Pet Physio who works mainly with sporting dogs and horses, through massage, laser and physiotherapy sessions in your own home as well as online webinars, ebooks and downloads.   

Zoe Hindle