January 2, 2013 by Dr. Deb at Wizard of Paws
Core strength is paramount and a key component to every dog’s health – whether it’s a competitive dog, a working or your couch warmer! Every dog, just like every person should have good core strength. In a person, it is analogous to a strong back and abdominal area. Many people that suffer from back pain do secondary to poor lower back and abdominal strength. Abdominal work should be a fundamental component of everyone’s exercise program. Core muscles also include other postural areas of the body.
Core strength assists dogs with the functioning of their lower and mid back, front legs, abdomen, back legs – well, just about every part of their body! The stronger the Type I muscle fibers, or the core muscles, the healthier the dog will be and the more stamina the dog will have. The slow twitch, or the Type I muscles fibers are more efficient at utilizing oxygen to generate ATP, or fuel or energy. They assist with continuous, prolonged muscle contractions for endurance. They fire slowly, per their name, but are responsible for endurance. The stronger the slow twitch muscle fibers, the better the endurance and stamina the dog will have. This will make the difference between a dog lasting for a sixty-minute walk versus a twenty-minute walk, competing all day in agility, or performing in any event they and their partners chose.
In addition, it will also assist with injury prevention. The longer the body is able to maintain its strength, the better the chances of preventing injury. For example, many iliopsoas injuries can be attributed to weak core muscles. Stronger core muscles will assist in the prevention of injuries, and assist in the problems associated with chronic conditions, such as elbow or hip dysplasia.
Many older dogs lose their core strength due to inactivity and age and subsequently lose their balance, endurance and stamina. Walks become shorter due to their endurance. The older dog will also not be able to stand for as long – she will prefer to sit down rather than stand and watch you cook dinner. She may also be less likely to go up and down the stairs. Of course there may be other contributing factors, but lack of strength and endurance plays a significant role.
Core strength is easy to work on – but do not be fooled! A little bit goes a long way and at least in the beginning, it is easy to overdo it! An easy way to begin is to start with gentle weight shifting – or moving the dog manually from side to side. So, while she is standing, place your hands on both sides of her hips and gently place some pressure on each hip reciprocally. The goal is for your dog to accept weight on each rear leg without knocking them over or allowing them to lose her balance. This should be performed until she gets tired – either sits down or runs away! And then repeated throughout the day. Since the Type I muscle fibers are responsible for endurance, the muscles should be worked throughout the day within reason. The goal will always be quality over quantity, as with any type of exercise.
Once the weight shifting on the floor has been mastered, the dog can start with the disc. (photo). The dog may be asked to place her front feet on the disc while the back legs stay on the ground. Weight shifting can be added. This is especially good for increasing the stability of the shoulders, elbows and wrists while improving body awareness of the dogs’ rear. The hind limbs can also be placed on the disc as well and this is very beneficial for dogs with knee problems and hip problems. The dog may also walk back and forth over the disc. Two discs may be placed together to place the hind limbs and the forelimbs on to work on balance. These exercises should be performed until the dog fatigues – quality over quantity should always be respected.
Donuts may also be used for hind end awareness and strengthening. The forelimbs may be placed on the donut while the hind end stays on the ground. Gentle weight shifting will assist with the strength. Two donuts may also be placed together for dogs to place their front legs on one and their back legs on the other. This is especially good for large dogs that have a difficult time getting on the peanut or egg, or dogs that are afraid of heights. Small dogs may also balance and stand on one donut.
The peanuts and eggs may be used for conditioning, balance, proprioception, body awareness and strength. The goal is for the dog to stand on the appropriate sized peanut or egg with minimal support. Standing is the first step and I usually recommend attempting to stand for up to five seconds and then repeating and gradually increasing. Some dogs are only able to lie down or sit on the ball – if that is the case – they will also work on their strength, balance and proprioception.
There are many different pieces of equipment that may be used for the core work – peanuts, discs, pods, wobble boards, or donuts. In addition to core strength, the dog will benefit from improved balance, body awareness, increased range of motion and flexibility, increased muscle tone and increased endurance. It is an easy activity that should be incorporated in to every dogs’ routine – whether an eight week old pup or an eighteen year old dog. All dogs will benefit.
***Dr. Debbie Gross Saunders has been involved with small animal rehabilitation and conditioning for over seventeen years. Visit her on her website at wizardofpaws.net or on Facebook for more information about her and core work.