How bodies work has been endlessly fascinating to me, so I’ve spent my adult life working with them — both human and animal — primarily doing medical massage and corrective bodywork. Most people know massage is a powerful health tool. From reducing pain and inflammation to calming the mind, massage has been used in every culture throughout the history of humans. And as most of you know, by now massage benefits our animal companions in all the same ways it benefits us.
But what happens when massage, love, good nutrition, and medical care are not enough to help your best friends live their best life? This question started nagging me a few years after my transition from working with people to working with animals. I was getting too many calls about companion animals of all ages who were losing their enjoyment of life because of mobility issues that massage and other treatments couldn’t address.
Many of these problems could have been avoided if the pet had been in better physical condition. The injury might not have happened, they would have bounced back more quickly and completely from a surgery, and age-related stiffness and weakness could have been held off longer. And in the long run, these animals could have been happily and easily by their person’s side for more time.
But aren’t our animal friends, especially dogs, naturally fit? Don’t we exercise them every day? We take them for walks and hikes, they swim, fetch, wrestle, do agility, and even surf? Well, those activities can be considered exercise, but to create strength, resilience, endurance, and quick reaction time, exercise has to be repetitive, purposeful and progressive. Unfortunately the activities our dogs do aren’t enough of these things to make them truly fit, or to keep them in long-lasting good condition.
Now, thanks to innovators and researchers in fields such as canine Orthopedics, Physical Therapy, and Kinesiology, there is a method to address this gap in canine health and preventative care. This new field goes by many names, but generally it’s referred to as some combination of the words canine, fitness, conditioning, and training, and it’s very similar to Happy Hound’s cross training.
So how do you get your dog to engage in fitness and conditioning training? Do they lift weights or take a spin class? No. But by using a dog’s natural love of activity, reward, and attention, we can teach them movements that target specific muscle groups. By perfecting and then systematically “progressing” those movements (by making them increasingly more difficult over time), that muscle group is challenged. The challenge is what causes the muscles to strengthen, increasing their ability to make the targeted, and similar, movements efficiently and with ease.
For example the “sit-stand-sit” exercise can help your dog properly and easily sit and stand, of course, but it also helps them walk, run, go up stairs, climb hills, or safely jump to snatch a disc out of the air.
Canine fitness and conditioning training has a load of other benefits, too. Stronger muscles mean smoother movement and stronger joints, which mean less chance of injury and early wear. In addition, those muscles elongating and shortening through the repetitive movement of exercise are moving oxygen, blood, and other essential fluids through the body like pumps, so the immune and cardiovascular systems get a boost. The whole system also gets a metabolic boost, so if weight is a concern, this is a great way to address it.
There are more than just physical benefits as well. I’ve found that puppies who are exposed to conditioning and fitness-type activities are generally more confident and learn new tasks quickly. Adolescent pups learn manners faster, are more willing to pay attention to you, and are more interested in what you’re doing together. Adult and mature dogs retain their ability to be physically active, and the mental stimulation that comes with working is as essential for a dog’s aging brain as it is for ours. I’ve also learned that all dogs, no matter the age, become even more bonded with their people, which is especially beneficial if you’ve adopted a dog.
Last, your dog’s body and personality are as unique as yours. When choosing an exercise plan, be sure it’s appropriate for their age, condition, and mental and physical ability. And don’t forget to make it as fun as possible.
Shelah Barr has been working with animals, primarily dogs, since 2005. She’s a Certified Canine Fitness Trainer, Canine Conditioning Coach, Fit Paws Master Trainer, Small Animal Massage Practitioner, Certified Massage Therapist, and Advanced Body Worker. She owns and operates Happy Hounds Massage & Fitness, www.HappyHoundsMassage.com, a nine-time Beast of the Bay winner. Barr spends her free time with her incompatible rescue dog and cat and volunteering for Compassion Without Borders.
Happy Hounds Massage postcards make a point about the importance of cross training.
Main article photo by: Photos courtesy Shelah Barr, Happy Hounds Massage