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Stretching for the Canine Athlete
From Warm-Up to Cool Down

Glyn Clayton

We as dog trainers must remember a very important point, and it is that our dogs are canine athletes. They are just like runners, gymnasts, basketball, and football players. We ask them in our training to perform great physical and mental feats. Yet, time and time again, I see trainers teach and practice the specific skills required for competition without building the proper platform on which these skills lay. The platform is physical conditioning. Just as all human athletes know that they must include this as part of their training program, so should we for our canine athletes.

Dog owners today are doing so many different activities with their dogs, both competitively and just for fun, that require a high level of physical conditioning. Agility, obedience, tracking, schutzhund, ring sport, herding, flyball, SAR (search and rescue), conformation, the list goes on and on. This is not just taking Rover for a walk in the park; these are athletic sports, and our dogs are the athletes. The difference between a high score and a lower one is often timed in fractions of seconds, or in how fast the dog performs a particular exercise. In addition to speed, concentration and the ability to deal with stress play a role in every dog sport, and these characteristics too can be affected by the physical condition of the dog.

Physical conditioning can be broken down into three main areas: strength, endurance, and flexibility. Strength is the ability of the dog's muscles and tendons to bear the load of and move the dog's body. Endurance is the ability for the dog's lungs, muscles, tendons, and other physical systems to work together to sustain activities over longer periods of time. Flexibility is the range of motion allowed by the amount of stretch in the muscles and tendons.



In the dog sport world, flexibility is the most neglected of the three conditioning areas. Working on some simple stretches as part of a warm-up routine prior to any physical activity is an easy way to add flexibility training to your program.

The importance of the warm up is to prepare the canine athlete for the task at hand. I can not tell you how many times I have seen handlers pull their dogs from their crates and immediately begin to require them to perform at high levels of precision-turning fast, running fast, and striking fast. All too often, the dog comes up hurt later that day or the next day, and the handler cannot figure out what could have happened. It is such a simple thing to do, warming up your dog, yet very good handlers overlook it all the time.


Warm up

Warm-up stretching should consist of some basic stretches as outlined below, as well as some activity to get the dog's blood pumping so the body will be prepared for more strenuous activities to follow. This activity does not need to be complicated, and I find that a short walk (distance depends on air temperature and amount of time at rest) at a moderate pace works very well. I recommend that the walk come first with the stretching immediately following. This way the dog is just a bit warmed up and the stretching will come easier.


Stretching Exercises

Stretch 1


Place your dog in a standing position with his rear either pushed up against your legs or with you straddling his rear, facing the same direction as the dog. With tidbits of food in your hand, guide the dog to stretch his nose to the sky while keeping him from sitting or bringing the front feet off the ground. Next, move the bait down in between the front legs, so the dog curls his neck and head down as close to his body as possible, while discouraging him from moving the front feet. Alternate between up and down stretches. Remember to move slowly from one to the other-this is a stretch.

Stretch 2

Place your dog in the same position as in Stretch 1 and move the food from in front of the dog's nose to the left, encouraging the dog to move its nose towards its tail by bending in the middle. Do the same to the right and alternate slowly from left to right. Do not allow the dog to stretch too far! The drive for the food may push the dog to go farther than it should at first. Build up the amount of bend slowly. Eventually the dog should be able to bend all the way to get a piece of food placed just to the opposite side of his tail (you will have to adjust your position at this point so you are only supporting the dog with one leg to keep the rear end from following the front).


Stretch 3

With the dog standing and you at his right side, carefully pick up the dog's left front foot with your left hand. With your right hand in the middle of the dog's chest, carefully pull the left leg straight out in front of the dog. Next, carefully tuck the leg up tight against the dog's body (the complete opposite position as stretched out) and then repeat a few times. Next work the "wrist" joint gently back and forth a few times. Do the same on the other front leg-be sure you switch sides! Build the amount of stretch slowly, pulling forward only until you feel the slightest resistance.


Stretch 4


With the dog standing and you standing off to one side of his rear, take a hind leg and carefully tuck it up tight to the body. Next gently pull the leg so it is extended directly behind the dog. Repeat this a few times and then work the "ankle" joint back and forth a few times. Do the same with the other leg. Build the amount of stretch slowly, pulling back only until you feel the slightest resistance.


Cool Down

Just as important as warm up is a cool-down period. This can consist of a walk similar to that used as part of the warm-up routine, but should last at the least until the dog's breathing returns to normal prior to being put back into a small kennel or crate. Water given during the cool-down period should be lukewarm not ice cold and given in small amounts over the cool-down period.                       

Our canine athletes need a program that puts them at their best physical condition so they can properly handle the physical and mental stresses training for dog sports places on them.  The program needs to incorporate proper warm up, stretching, and cool down.  It should include strength, endurance, and flexibility training.  Sound like a lot of trouble? Well maybe, but it really is common sense.  Your attention to building your dog's flexibility and making sure that your dog is properly warmed up and cooled down could eliminate weeks of down time due to an injury.

Glyn Clayton trains and competes with her German Shepherd dogs in various dog sports including Schutzhund, Agility, and AKC Obedience & Tracking.  Glyn's current competition dog is Midnight Calamity, FH2,CDX,TD,TR3,OB2,OA,OAJ,BH,AD,CGC,TT and her up and coming star is Hellequin vom Eichenluft.






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