Originally published 4/9/2015.
Want to try some fun and games?
Canine fitness exercises are a great way to help your dog live a happier and healthier life, while at the same time strengthening the dog’s behavior, confidence, focus, body awareness, and key muscle groups. My dogs consider canine fitness training their favorite time of the day; they love the mental and physical workout.
I use props, some that are purchased specifically for the task and others that are common household items, such as stairs, boxes, stepstools, and more. I draw on a variety of canine fitness exercises with these props, ranging from easy to much more difficult (examples below!). Before beginning any exercise program with your dog, be sure to consult with your veterinarian. As your healthy dog masters the easier exercises, you can gradually progress to more challenging exercises together. All of the exercises are fun to clicker train and can help you perfect your own clicker skills.
Be sure to practice the exercises in this article in short, 3-5 minute training sessions, stopping at a level of success for your dog and long before your dog tires of the exercise. Before training a new behavior, think about appropriate reward delivery and the placement of the reward. For instance, if I am teaching my dog to move away (in order to go around a cone), and I am interested in building distance into the behavior, I will reward him for moving away from me. As my dog wraps around the backside of the cone, I click and toss the reward. I plan ahead how to reward for the proper execution of the behavior.
With preparation like this, and a focus on consistency, your dog will enjoy and succeed at the exercises, becoming stronger, confident, and body-aware, all of which will help him in his day-to-day activities or to excel at his dog sport.
Consider some of the following “from-home” items as props in the canine fitness exercises you try with your dog.
- Sofa cushions (use multiple cushions for a full body workout, or stack cushions for a greater balance challenge)
- Several sizes of shallow storage-container bottoms
- Cardboard boxes
- Small rubber livestock feed tubs (pick a size that your dog can put his front feet onto easily)
Here are some good beginner exercise to launch your training and workout routine.
Stretching is important for increasing flexibility and range of motion. The cookie stretch exercise is a great one to put on cue to help your dog get ready for his workout! I find the easiest way to get this behavior on cue is to capture it when the dog stretches naturally. I keep a clicker and a handful of treats by my nightstand so that I can capture my dog, Desmo, in his morning stretch! Click and treat for every stretch, and match a cue to it. With consistency, your dog will start to offer the behavior. Click for extended durations, and your dog will stretch his way into better range of motion and flexibility.
Stretching can also be done using a target stick. While your dog is standing, position the target stick near the dog’s tail so that your dog stretches from nose to tail. Place your other hand on your dog's rump to keep him from spinning all the way around. Encourage your dog to stretch to each rear toe, under his legs, and with his neck high, depending on where you put the target stick.
Once your dog can stretch on cue, encourage him to stretch before and after exercise. If you are incorporating canine fitness into dog-training classes, cool down with stretching during the last 10 minutes of class.
To make the stretching exercises more difficult, ask your dog to stretch on the props, which will increase his strength and flexibility at the same time.
Puppy squats (repetitions of down-to-stands)are excellent for rear and shoulder strengthening. Click for a sit, and then shape into a stand. Teach your dog the cue “stand.” Click for each squat, and encourage repetitions of squats.
When your dog masters the first stage of the squat exercise (on the ground), bring in props for an added core challenge. Try front feet on a prop with back feet on the ground, or vice versa. Add two props for a full-body core workout. Managing the unstable surfaces of the props will strengthen your dog's core and stabilize his muscles. It will also add comfort and confidence regarding objects that move under your dog’s feet.
Once your dog has mastered some beginner exercises, move on to more challenging exercises that will become the foundation to future exercise and behavior.
Front feet on a prop
This exercise is great for body awareness, and can be transferred to other fun games. First, shape your dog to put both paws on a prop. Livestock feed tubs are great props, as they are made from black rubber and are available in various sizes. Start by establishing a cue for front feet on prop. Once this behavior is on cue, begin to shape back feet motion. Eventually, you will be able to teach your dog to stand with front feet on the object, and then back feet circling 360° around the object. I use the front feet on a prop exercise to teach dogs to heel in a happy and enthusiastic way. This behavior is also the beginning behavior for weaving though your legs. An unstable tub can be used to increase strength and confidence.
All four feet on a prop
This is another great exercise for your feed-tub props, but you can use whatever will support your dog. Start with an object with a surface that can hold your dog easily. Shape your dog to place all four feet on the object. Once you have this behavior on cue, the fun part is shrinking the size of the object/surface! Be sure to work gradually to where your dog can really balance on each object you try. As your dog becomes more proficient, find all kinds of crazy objects for him to balance on!
All four feet in an object
This exercise is also good with feed tubs, but shallow cardboard boxes or bottoms of storage containers will work as well. Start with an object large enough for your dog to learn to put all four feet in easily, and then gradually keep shrinking the size of the object. Challenge your dog’s body awareness skills, and his balance skills, with smaller and smaller objects.
This exercise helps with rear-end awareness and strengthening. I shape this behavior in my family room using my sofa and coffee table. To start, make a narrow channel that the dog can fit in, but cannot turn around in. Put the dog in the channel and stand at one end of the channel, facing the dog. Wait for him to back up. Click and reward for any motion backward, even just a weight shift or a head turn. Eventually, the dog starts backing up as soon as he is placed in the channel. Start widening the channel until it’s no longer needed. Put a name to the behavior and proof it in different locations.
When your dog knows how to back up on cue, you can teach other fun exercises such as backing up onto a prop. Start with low-to-the-ground props, such as Discs or wobble boards, for an advanced core benefit. Be sure to position your dog close to the prop so that he only needs to take one step back to be in contact with the prop. Click for any contact with the prop, even just a graze of the foot.
You can also back up your dog onto stairs. Shape the back-up step by step. Toss the treat to the dog after the click, instead of having him come to you. This will encourage your dog to remain on the step.
Attempt advanced exercises only with a dog that is physically healthy, and if this kind of canine fun continues to be truly fun for your dog!
Backing up onto a wall (a handstand)
To start, place a board or sofa cushion leaning against a wall. Start with the prop at a 45–degree, angle asking your dog to back further and further up the prop each time. Increase the angle of the prop until your dog will put his back feet on it all the way to the top eagerly and easily. Eventually, you can fade away the prop and use the wall. Lots of dogs can learn to balance themselves without the aid of the wall, performing a true handstand. I haven’t yet taught that to any of my dogs!
This exercise(lateral backups) follows the same idea as the handstand. However, in this advanced exercise you shape your dog to back up onto a wall using the same side front and back leg lift. If you have already taught the handstand behavior, this one goes pretty quickly. Use the same props and idea, but you will have to be quick capturing the front leg lifts to get started. This is a great exercise for improving coordination.
An even more advanced version of hand-standing and Spider Man climbing is training the dog to stand on balance discs with his opposite side feet.
Off you go!
There are many new and fun exercises to help you begin a fitness and conditioning program with your favorite canine! Beyond these exercise suggestions, search out more, or use your imagination! Remember to start each exercise with the foundation skill and gradually build to where you are using your props to increase the challenges. Most importantly, have fun!