The great thing about them is that they are very easy to do and learn to do, and they are not time consuming at all.
I ideally exercise with the dogs while letting them run loose and play in the yard, and during the training and race season, we have so called Recovery Days for that.
As you will see on the pictures below, it is possible to combine 2 in 1 and get fun and purpose out of it at the same time :) The dogs usually love the attention.
The basic exercises I am going to talk about, have a few purposes at once:
2. Exercising and Maintaining Flexibility
4. Pre and Post Performance Warm Up
I will explain how these points work, as I take you through the five exercise examples.
This is the first one I recommend to begin with, after the dog(s) has been moving for a few minutes (running, playing). I call it PAWS UP :
You can begin simply and naturally, just like Star and I show on the picture above. The target is to get the dog to get on his/her hind feet and lift his front up. You can lure the dog to jump with his front paws on an elevated object (chair, tree, wall, your chest, etc.).
You can also use a treat (I use regular kibble) and lure the dog to lift his front or jump for it, as pictured below.
Be careful, if the dog appears stiff, is older, has problems with his wrists and joints, do not do the jumping in the air part.
Ideally, it should look like this:
Once the dog has his feet on your chest, you can continue higher, by taking his paws in your hands and elevating them higher, up to your shoulders, like this:
Inuk is showing a nice Paws Up stretch on this picture:
The purpose of this exercise is to get the dog to make an easy overall active stretch of his body, his hind and front legs (mainly muscles on his thighs and shoulders), hips, back muscles, spine and abdomen.
It´s an exercise that doesn´t require much effort on either side (the dog nor the owner) and doesn´t put the dog into an awkward position, which he doesn´t trust or understand.
Through Paws Up you achieve a warm up, important before performance or after performance, to avoid stiffening of muscles, you exercise flexibility of the dog (this is especially important in aging dogs who don´t have as much physical activity anymore, to keep them flexible), and as a bonus, you are bonding with your canine friend, who usually loves this.
The next exercise is actually a series of gymnastic flexibility exercises, focused mainly on the neck and head. We call them simply RIGHT FLEX, LEFT FLEX, HEAD UP and HEAD DOWN.
These are basically bending exercises and their purpose is not only a flexibility stretching, but diagnostic as well.
Before you start practicing with your dog(s), please be very careful and look for any signs of discomfort, while you work with the dog. Working dogs and sled dogs in particular are prone to neck injuries. It can be from all the jerking on the gangline, as they work attached to the main line by neckline, clipped to their collar. It isn´t uncommon for sled dogs to get tangled or hit a small tree when the team travels through a thick forest on a narrow trail. A running partner who dips for snow or water can cause many jerks along the run. The neck absorbs a lot of stress and the injuries don´t have to be huge, but can still cause stiffness and discomfort and if this is not being regularly treated and taken care of, it may cause the dog to become very stiff and limited in motion in a higher age.
So, here HuggyBear demonstrates the Right Flex, in several stages. It is really important to go from stage to stage slowly, step by step.
Using a treat, let the dog stand straight on a solid surface and lure him to flex his head (neck) to one side. The Right Flex actually stretches the muscles and ligaments on the dog´s left side.
Here, HuggyBear is about midway towards his right thigh. You can stay in this position for a while, before continuing further.
A healthy, flexible dog should have no problem whatsoever to touch his thigh with his nose. You can also lower your hand towards the dog´s hind paw and get him to touch it as well. This can be taught with clicker as a trick and can make it really easy to work with the dog on his active stretching exercises.
And for a complete picture - Left Flex (bending to the dog´s left, stretching his right side).
Always make sure the dog doesn´t show any signs of discomfort at a certain stage.
So for example if he flexes fine up till midway from touching his thigh, but at this point starts showing discomfort, unwillingness to flex further or simply seems to not be able to flex any further, do not force him to flex more. Instead, go back to the beginning position with head forward and do the flexes again, only up to the problem point. The dog may just be stiff in his neck and body and if you continue patiently repeating these exercises on daily basis (or even twice a day), he should start showing signs of improvement eventually. If he still has a problem with his flexibility at a certain point and on a certain side (for example, flexing to the right is easier for him than to the left), he may be out of balance, which can be improved by gymnastic and stretching exercises, but he may also need a good, experienced certified dog chiropractor/physiotherapist.
One of our dogs Sparky (big, 7 years old male) has a fairly large problem with neck flexibility on both sides. When I started to do these exercises with my dogs, I found out he really struggles with bending his neck. When I helped him to flex further than he seemed willing to, he screamed in pain. After analyzing what seems to have caused this problem, I clearly recalled his two accidents that happened a few years back. In both cases, Sparky, running in wheel position, in a tight curve went one way, while the rest of the team the other way, with a tree in between. In both cases I managed to lower the impact by hitting the brakes (once on sled, once on atv). In one case Sparky´s neckline broke. I have switched to safety neckline snaps since then (I will write about using these and other safety equipment in one of my next posts), and we have been fortunate that both situations ended up the way they did. But clearly, they caused him neck injury, which we would not have found out about, if we wouldn´t do these gymnastic and stretching exercises. Now we know that when an oportunity arrives, we will have Sparky looked at and treated by a professional sled dog chiropractor.
He is fine, he works like a horse but his neck stiffness caused by the old injury would start increasing without treatment and could cause him trouble at higher age.
Sparky´s story is a typical example of how important diagnostic role the gymnastic and stretching exercises play.
The last two exercises are:
Head Up, stretching the bottom part of the neck. You can go further up and back, I just didn´t get a better picture of more stretched head.
And Head Down, bending the head down toward the front feet, then between them and as far back as possible, exactly as shown on the pictures below. The dog stretches not only his back part of neck, but also his back. This is an excellent exercise, mainly for the older dogs.
You can repeat all the exercises two or three times each time you work with the dog. You can even do a morning and evening session, if necessary.
So, these are the five basic, simple exercises you can easily learn and perform at home, to improve the flexibility of your dogs, to warm them up before and after physical performance and to detect a problem or injury.
By doing gymnastics and stretching with your dog(s) regularly, you constantly learn to know their bodies better. This helps to notice any difference, problem or change in the dog´s body (for example due to injury or illness) that may occur. It is a known fact that people who truly live with their dogs have such well trained eyes and through knowing their dogs really well, are able to determine a problem very fast, which helps to treat and cure it in time.
Besides, bonding, spending the time together and doing some other type of activity is a wonderful bonus and natural tool to strengthening your relationship.