Having done soccer through high school and five years of martial arts in college and grad school, it would be almost unheard of to do no stretching before a practice or competition. But we ask this of our working and performance dogs all the time. We love to see them hot out of the crate and ready to work, right? That way their drive is probably at the tops right as they come out onto the field or arena. The problem with this is that most dog sports from KNPV to doggie musical free style is that they can be very fast paced with a lot of forces put on the body that the canine athlete goes through.
I had a rather rude awakening while I was doing an externship at the University of Tennessee doing a rotation in physical rehabilitation. On the last day of the rotation, I brought my own dog in so the head rehabilitation faculty member could do an assessment. Being a dog I have considered breeding in the future, I of course dutifully had his hips and elbows radiographed and submitted to OFA (among a number of other tests). Fawkes's hips were read as OFA Good and his elbows were normal at 26 months of age. So I was surprised at just the age of barely four, she noted on her assessment that his lumbosacral area where the hips joint the spine, he was already somewhat sensitive there, likely from doing what he is asked to do as a performance dog: bites on the bite suit or the hard Schutzhund sleeve that put pressure on his neck, twists in the air for dock diving and disc catching that put pressure on his lower spine, and pivots and fast turns during herding that put pressure on the spine and leg joints. Here are some visual examples with the first being with catching a disc and the second at a dock diving competition in extreme vertical (high jump where the toy is suspended on a boom eight feet out from a dock at least five feet from the water).
So while I had done several seminars on conditioning the canine athlete and had certainly heard that warming dogs up is a good idea...I never really did it. It was quite the wake up call. I want my dog to be training and competing as long and as comfortably as possible, so with all the activities my dog is asked to do, we're going to have to work on this. Some good stretches are as follows:
-cookie stretches: have the dog take a treat so they flex their up to the sky and down their chest using the treat as a lure. Then repeat holding the treat to take at their right and left shoulder. Then have them take the treats from each of their hips
-play bow: using another treat to lure, place the treat in between the dog's front paws. The head should go down. With additional reps, move the treat toward the dog's chest but still between the front legs. You can use a marker word or clicker to mark when the elbows go down but the hind end stays up in the air
-sit to stand: have the dog go into a sit to stand or "sit pretty" on carpet (easier to grip than wood or tile) by luring them with a tasty treat over their heads. This strengthens the core muscles of the abdomen and back, which is especially important for dogs prone to lumbosacral problems such as German shepherds.
-playing tug: especially important for dogs who spend more time on just their hind legs, such as Schutzhund. Using a two handled tug, move laterally back and forth and forward and backward with the tug slowly at first so the dog is used to being on their hind legs to develop hind leg awareness and core strength. For dogs who don't like to play tug, encourage them to do doggie dancing on their hind legs for just a few seconds at a time to increasing intervals.
There are many other stretches and activities to do with your active dog before stepping out onto the training or trial field that are beyond the scope of this post. In addition, a foundations agility class is helpful for nearly all dog sports so dogs understand that yes, they do indeed have back feet and to be aware of them. Next post, we'll talk about marker training and how to incorporate it into many aspects of sports medicine.