Whether you have a canine athlete, do obedience training with your dog, hike with him or just play in the garden, warming up is an important aspect of helping to prevent injuries or injury flare-ups. By raising the body temperature and heating muscle tissue slowly via activity-based warm-ups and with a balanced exercise programme, you can maintain a properly conditioned dog.
Warm-up exercises should include strength training – targeting the front and back limbs, core body work, proprioception, stretching and flexibility. This will ensure that the muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints are more flexible and less susceptible to injury – the more flexible the tissue, the less likely it is to be strained and torn.
An additional benefit of warming up includes an increase in heart rate in preparation for exercise. Also, warmed muscles utilise oxygen and nutrients more effectively and can contract and relax more quickly so your dog will be less stiff after exercise. Lastly, it mentally prepares both dog and handler for exercise.
It is easy to forget that after exercise it is very important to cool down our dogs and help prevent injury and muscle tightness and soreness. Lactic acid accumulation is a primary component of muscle fatigue and soreness. When muscles, tendons and ligaments are fatigued and tight, the risk for injury increases. This is where a proper cool-down becomes so important. Cool-down activities are a good time to reward the dog for his work and effort with you in the show or practice ring as well as cooling down his body and helping to prevent tight muscles.
Another benefit of the cool-down process is that it helps the body to eliminate toxins such as lactic acid, consequently reducing the risk of stiffness after exercise. It also gives an opportunity to identify signs of injury quickly after an event and allows the heart rate to return to a resting level.
A 15-minute controlled walk can help warm the muscles and connective tissue to help prevent strains and ruptures of muscles and connective tissue. This not only gets them slowly warmed up, but also helps familiarise them with the noises, smells and excitement of the show area. I find these walks also help relax them considerably while slowly warming them up.
Sit to stand, sit to down and stand to down
Sit to stand – helps your dog use both hind legs evenly and to increase blood flow and hind-end strength; both important for running and agility. Sit to down – also known as doggie push-ups, helps strengthen and warm up the front limbs. Stand to down – great flexibility exercise to increase circulation.
Eight to 10 repetitions of each activity should suffice.
Passive range of motion and stretching
Move all the front and hind limb joints through a comfortable range of motion and stretch all the major front and hind limb muscles – keep each stretch for at least 15 seconds. This will prepare your dog for propulsion and jumping. Side stretches (nose to hip) will loosen lateral shoulder and neck muscles for side-to-side movements.
Lastly, just before the sports activity starts, to improve blood circulation, massage all the major muscle groups that the dog is going to use. Massaging your dog will also reduce your own blood pressure and help avoid those pre-run nerves. Ten to 15 minutes should be sufficient.
Evaluate your dog’s heart rate before warm-up and again just before the event. Keep notes of the heart rate and familiarise yourself as to what is normal for the breed and level of fitness.
Free running and playing
For five to 10 minutes just play calmly with your dog … run, play fetch or tug with lots of positive rewards for a job done well. This will reduce the lactic acid and help with muscle tightness, stiffness and soreness.
Flowing movements and backing up
Ten minutes of right and left circles and spins, weaving through legs or running or walking in a figure eight are all fun movements to create flexibility in the muscles, ligaments and tendons and enhance the range of motion.
Passive range of motion and stretching
Again move all the front and hind limb joints through a comfortable range of motion and stretch all the major front and hind limb muscles – keep each stretch for at least 15 seconds – this will counteract any muscle fatigue and prevent stiffness.
Evaluate your dog’s heart rate at the end of the activity or event and again at the end of the cool-down session. Again, keep notes of the heart rate and familiarise yourself as to what is normal for the breed and level of fitness.
Text: Heather Whitfield of Paws-itive Paws-abilities, veterinary physical rehabilitation and hydrotherapy practice.