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Strengthening the core - 5 things you need to know about exercising your dog.

Dogs are my friends, my children and my solace and I couldn't imagine life without them. My dogs are incredible and they deserve the very best I can give them. I am sure you feel exactly the same way about your dogs too.

Living with humans has its downside. Our dogs are increasingly experiencing the same health problems as us. They are becoming more sedentary and gaining weight. They are increasingly suffering from diabetes and heart conditions.

An overweight body (whether human or canine) increases the pressure on joints, ligaments, muscles, and internal organs. This all makes movement and exercise uncomfortable and, in some cases, painful. A vicious cycle of reduced activity causes more weight gain.

If your dog is a canine athlete, a flyball fiend or a flying agility or working dog, they will likely be fitter and healthier. But athletes train for their particular activity; making them vulnerable to injury when they exercise in a different way.

No matter how active your dog is they will generally be a nightmare if they injure themselves. Injury often leads to weeks and sometimes months of frustrating rehabilitation and re-injury. When your dog feels better, they start running about as they used to, often re-injuring themselves. Does this sound like your dog, it certainly sums up mine?

So, what are the five things you need to know about exercising your dog?

1. Dogs are supposed to be good at moving at speed over rough terrain

Dogs have evolved to be efficient, endurance athletes. They would naturally be running through and over the landscape, weaving and jumping obstacles in the pursuit of their quarry.

Admittedly, many dog today are not really built to fulfil this romantic notion of the species, but they still have the same bones and muscles (if not in the same proportions) as their wild ancestors.

Walks with our dogs are more likely to involve human paths and parkland. Even in woodland you will often find my dogs walking next to me and sticking to man-made paths which are, for the most part, level and free from debris. This is a logical, and unconscious behaviour. In life, we all generally choose an easy path and take easier decisions as this requires less energy and, from an evolutionary perspective, the less energy used the better.

There is little in common between pristine woodland and prairies and the human world of footpaths, woodland tracks, and parkland. Our dogs, just like us, are not using their bodies the way they were intended, and this causes weaknesses and increases the risk of injury and pain.

2. Many dogs have weak core muscles

Below is my Eva just after knee surgery. At this point her exercise had been restricted for 8-10 weeks and the last 6 of those she had been crate rested. This inactivity had impacted all her muscles, including her core muscles. I can see this from her posture; what can you see?

The core muscles in your dog

The core muscles stabilise the weakest area of your dogs spine - the lumbar.

  • The Multifidus stabilise the spine just before and throughout movement.

  • Transverse abdominals support the viscera (stomach, intestines, and other internal organs) and stabilise the spine on the move.

  • The Diaphragms hold the internal organs in place and link the abdominals to the muscles around the spine.

I like to think these muscles are a bit like a beer barrel (not sure what that says about me though). They provide protection for the contents, i.e. the internal organs, and support the body. If these muscles are weak then the body is at increased risk from injury.

3. Your dog can 'hoon' around without engaging their core

Just like us, your dog can move about quite effectively without using their core muscles. However, without the core muscles engaging, their stabilising and support roles are taken up by other muscles. Unfortunately, these other muscles are not as good at the job and become tight and painful. They are also not able to do the job that they are supposed to do themselves.

If your dog is mostly walking on pavements, human paths, and level parkland, their core muscles will be weak unless you are working them through other forms of exercise.

4. Weak core muscles increase injury risk and back pain

Just like in humans, having a weak core puts stresses on the other muscles. It affects posture and allows gravity to pull the body downward, changing the way your dog sits and stands as well as how they move.

Any body, including yours, will look to move when asked to. It will adapt continually to allow this to happen. But not using muscles correctly will result in aches and pains in other parts of the body. If you have a weak core you might also have lower back pain, you may find your neck and shoulders ache and sitting up straight is exhausting. If you are a woman you may even find you develop some urinary incontinence. Your dog will experience a weak core in the same way.

A dog with limited core strength may have a visible dip or sway to their top line. Their tummy might look to be hanging and swinging on the move. They may not have a visible 'tuck up' or waistline. In severe cases they can even become incontinent.

Romeo prior to Hip Dysplasia diagnosis

Meet Romeo. Romeo's back legs were getting weaker and to compensate he was bulking up in his front.

Romeo had just started my 8-week body conditioning training but I recommended his vet re-assess him. As a result he was diagnosed with hip dysplasia and put on pain medication. His owner agreed to keep him on the programme.

The pain medication allowed him to work his back legs again and his strength started to return. He started to engage and strengthen his core muscles, and this allowed him to move more evenly on all four legs. He literally changed shape over the 8 week course.

Now, a year later, Romeo is no longer taking regular pain medications.

"His [Romeo's] vet is astounded by his physical condition which is maintained through body conditioning, massage, and acupuncture." Steph Hartley, Welwyn

5. Core strength training your dog is like Pilates for you

To re-engage and strengthen core muscles requires slow, focussed exercise. Your dog may be able to run around the whole time they are out. But this doesn't mean they are using their bodies correctly. If your dog has a weak core then focussing on specific exercises, done correctly and slowly will get results.

Just like Pilates, core training can protect against injury because using the right muscles to stabilise the spine and viscera allows the body to move the way it has adapted over millennia.

In addition, just like Pilates, regular core training will usually change the shape and posture of your dog, increase their confidence, and create a more balanced, agile movement. But exercises have to be done correctly to get the results you are looking for.

That is where attending a core conditioning class comes in. By learning what exercises are beneficial and, more importantly, how they should be completed, you are giving your dog the very best chance at a healthy, high quality life. And as I said right at the beginning of this blog, our incredible dogs deserve the very best we can give them.

Lurcher with good core muscles
My Eva after completing the conditioning training

How Body Conditioning Training is delivered

Body conditioning your dogs will strengthen their core and the changes in your dog will be visible. Hopefully, you can see the difference between my Eva here and the picture earlier after her crate rest. As you can see, I am unable to stop my beautiful girl from turning to face me at every opportunity, hence the use of my foot. I am a massage therapist and core conditioning coach. I am not a trainer.

This leads me to the last aspect of my body conditioning courses. I teach you, the owner, the exercises that are needed and how they should be performed. I do not train your dog to do the exercises.

I am your coach and will support and guide you all the way. I will offer suggestions and encouragement, but you be the one working with your dog. Working with your dog in this very different way allows you both to build in confidence, gain trust and have fun learning more about each other.

Personally, working with Eva on the conditioning courses made my relationship with her more fulfilling and meaningful. Her growing confidence and cheeky behaviours lifted my spirits and made my heart sing. I used the programmes to help rehabilitate her from her knee surgeries and to get her back to running like only a lurcher can.

But I have used the programme with dogs of all ages, sizes and activity levels. Find out more about Body Conditioning and download a booking form for an 8 week course here.

Still not sure; then take a look at more dramatic changes from my clients and hear their own stories here.

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