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