On July 6th, 2020, Dr. Chris Zink, a sports medicine veterinary specialist and a person I greatly admire, wrote a piece titled “Stop Taking Your Dog for a Walk.” You can imagine that got my attention, since I had recently written a post about the importance of, uh, taking your dog for a walk. However, it turns out what we were saying isn’t as far apart as it might look. I was advocating for, as was clear in the title–The Best Exercise for a Dog is Using it’s Nose–letting dogs walk at their own pace and use their noses as a way of exercising their brains and improving their quality of life. Let dogs be dogs, essentially.
Dr. Zink, on the other hand, is arguing that a regular leash walk is not the kind of physical exercise a dog needs to stay healthy as they age. Her point is that walking on a leash rarely improves a dog’s strength, proprioception, balance, or flexibility. Unless the owner is one heck of a fast walker and their dog is pretty small, most walks aren’t going to provide much aerobic exercise either.
Of course, getting out and stretching one’s legs has to be good for dogs who otherwise wouldn’t move around at all, but I think it’s critical to take her comment seriously, especially if you have a dog who is either aging or involved in some kind of sport. But really, surely any dog can profit by being more physically fit. The best way to do that is to create ways to add to their strength, flexibility and balance. Here are some ideas about how to do that, all advised by people much more knowledgeable than I am about canine structure and movement.
WALK ON A LONG LINE: Zink’s article advocates taking your dog out on a long line to an area where he can move normally–speed up to check out a scent, turn back fast when trotting by a bush where a rabbit slept, change gaits, etc. This, of course, has the added benefit of exercising both your dog’s body and his brain. I’d add, if at all possible, to let your dog off leash if it’s legal, if it’s safe and if your dog has a 100% (99.99?) reliable stop and recall. (I first wrote that last sentence with the IFs capitalized but it looked like I was yelling. Actually, I sort of was, but let’s just say I was speaking clearly and in an atypically low voice.) My only caution when using a long line is to please, please pay more attention to your dog around others. We’ve all seen too many dogs get themselves into trouble at the end of a long line while their owner was otherwise engaged, right?
The rest of the recommendations are from either canine fitness expert Lori Steven’s perfect article in Whole Dog Journal (Dec 2017), “Fitness for the Aging Dog,” or from my physical therapy sessions with Courtney Arnoldy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Veterinary Hospital. I’ve worked with Courtney with Willie, Maggie and Skip, and have a bevy of exercise equipment to show for it. I’m going to mention just a few exercises here, but don’t miss the chance to see Lori Steven’s great article. I tore it out and actually put the print version in Maggie’s file folder. How lucky we are it’s still online. Lori was also on a Ken Ramirez’s podcast not too long ago, here’s an outline.
SPHINX-DOWN or DOWN-UPS (From Lori Stevens) In this exercise you are asking your dog to keep her feet square underneath her while she stands up, lies down, stands up, lies down. The goal is for the dog to not move her feet as she gets up and down. It takes awhile for dogs to catch on to this, (Maggie and Skip both wanted to move their feet) and it helps to have the dog standing on a slightly raised platform just a big larger than the dog when she’s lying down. Stevens states, and Arnoldy agrees, that this simple exercise is good for core strength, hip joint flexibility and strengthening the hind end.
I’ll give their oh-so-important caution here, which relates to all exercises like this, about starting small and going slowly. These exercises might look simple, but they are actually a lot of work and the dog’s muscles can get tired very easily. I started both Maggie and Skip at 10 reps only, 1 set, and didn’t fuss too much if they didn’t do it perfectly. Gradually they got better and better. Maggie is now up to 30 reps, 3 sets, 3 times a week.
Here’s Maggie doing some reps.
This is much harder for Skip, in part because he hasn’t been doing it that long, and in part because his hind leg structure is a bit of a cartoon. It’s simply much harder for him to keep his legs directly beneath him when doing these kind of exercises. Courtney advised going slowly, not worrying about complete precision in the beginning, and paying careful attention to when he begins shifting his legs farther apart (which means his muscles are tiring).
PAWS UP (From Lori Stevens) Another way to strengthen the hind quarters is what Lori calls Two Paws Up. Simple as pie: Teach your dog to put his front paws on something 2-3 inches higher than the floor. (Make sure it’s not slippery.) Use treats to lure your dog into position, and ask them to stand still for about 10 seconds, no more, the first time. Take a break, and repeat 2 more times. She advises adding 5 seconds at a time every 7-10 days. Eventually you can raise the height of the platform, but again, caution caution caution about going too fast. Whenever you raise the height, reduce the duration. If you’re not sure, go slow. Slower. Really. It’s hard work. (Stevens adds this caution: If your dog’s hind legs are held in a wider stance than her front, it means that she is struggling to maintain the stance and it’s too difficult. Decrease the difficulty until she can stand square.
BALANCE BOARD I got a balance board to help Willie recover from his shoulder surgery, then hauled it out of the attic when Maggie tore her cruciate. I never put it away, because Maggie is always going to need her back leg muscles as strong as possible to protect her knees. She is an absolute rock star on it now, and thinks it’s the greatest game in town. We are up to 3 sets of 120 seconds, with me rocking the board as erratically as I can.
I noticed while watching the video that Maggie was putting more weight on her left foreleg than the right. Interesting, given that her injury was on her right hind, so it should have been the other way around. That will be something for me to watch. (Another good reason to tape your dog while moving or exercising. You never know what you are going to see.) FYI, I was rocking that board extra hard so that you could see it, usually it’s not quite that extreme. Given the wild ride, Maggie did great.
We also combine it with a leg lift (also recommended by Stevens), which loads the leg diagonal to the one being lifted. (Ex: Lifting the dog’s right forepaw asks the left hind to do more work. You can do this on the flat, but the advanced version is on a balance board. Maggie, again gets the Gold Medal on this, but Skip is working on it too.
Here’s Skip working on his form with all paws on the ground. It’s hard to get him to stand square over his paws, so you can see that I spend some time working on that in the beginning. I can see how I could have done a more perfect job setting him up, but I’m not going to go there, because perfection should never get in the way of good enough.
Full disclosure: I probably wouldn’t be doing this exercises if my dogs hadn’t been injured, but now they are part of our weekly routine. We do Down-Ups on the flat and on slightly sloped surfaces (go slow here, much harder when you add in slope), sometimes I have the dogs have forepaws on the balance board, and not hind legs, etc. etc. What’s important is to watch your dog very, very carefully, looking for any sign of discomfort. Never force anything, and take breaks more often than you think necessary. And it would be wise to have your dog checked out before doing any of these if you have the slightest suspicion that they are not sound. There are lots more exercises you can look into, I encourage you to do so when you have some time.
What about you? Do you have your dog do any exercises like this? If so, please share your experience, we’ll all profit from it. Come to think of it, I have also had both dogs walk over poles at gradually increasing heights, a good thing to do to help their proprioception. As I write, I’m thinking it’s time to get back to doing those, the equipment is in the garage. Next question: Could you please send me more hours in the day? Thank you so much, I’ll look forward to receiving them.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: In spite of the heat we had some good sheep herding lessons with Sam J this weekend. I was too busy working Maggie and Skip to get any photos of them, but here’s a sweet young thing I fell in love with on Sunday. Her name is Nan, owned by friend Merry R. This sweet young thing, whose face glows with love and the innocence of youth, can come live with me any time, although Merry, and possibly Maggie, might object.
Mid July is the height of color here at the farm. The day lilies and daisies make me smile dozens of times every time. And they are just getting started in this photo.
Here’s a ruffly day lily that makes me think of tea in a Victorian garden. Please pass the cream while I get my parasol.
The Bee Balm flowers on the right of the photo are just outside our living room window, and a female hummingbird comes about every 10-15 minutes, literally all day long. I know she has a nest somewhere very nearby and I have grown inordinately fond of her. God speed little momma, I hope your babies make it.
An Eastern Black Swallowtail Female visited the Monarda (purple flowers) this weekend. I say female because she has smaller yellow spots than a male, and more blue on the wings. I followed her around the yard but lost her when she flitted up above the wild plum trees. So many beautiful animals out and about now, they are such a lift.
I considered apologizing for posting so many flower photos lately, but if you read The Education of Will you know that, beside the dogs, they are my passion and my therapy all mixed into one. If you’re getting sick of them please tell Maggie or Skip.