Laurie's Blog


31 Dec 1969


Winner Weiner


by Dr. Rachel Balckmer


I work with a lot of sport dogs developing return-to-sport conditioning programs (following complete healing from an injury) or to address deficits in performance. One of the greatest challenges that nearly all sport dogs face is deceleration and turning. For example, dogs running to retrieve a dumbbell in obedience have to shift their weight back during deceleration in order to grab the object and turn on their forehand simultaneously. Agility dogs have to decelerate when they’re descending the dogwalk or A-frame (stopped contacts) or when they’re collecting to take a jump and turn. Dogs in IPO (Schutzhund) and competition obedience must decelerate on the recall to front and flyball dogs must decelerate dramatically when they hit their box turn.


Taking just one example, the weight shift we see as a dog arrives at a retrieve object to make their pickup is a result of their deceleration. Controlled deceleration results in excellent weight shift and a precisely executed fast pickup. Those nuances - the precision of the pickup and turn (or the speed into a stop on the dogwalk, or the quickness of the turn in flyball) can make a big difference to scores and winning vs not winning.


Deceleration is complex, involving the most challenging of muscle efforts, eccentric contraction. As a reminder, there are three types of muscle contraction - concentric (the muscle shortens while doing work - think biceps curl), isometric (the muscle maintains its length while doing work - think holding a weight with your arm extended in front of you), and eccentric (the muscle lengthens while doing work - think of the work your quads do lowering your body in a controlled squat).


In the dog, deceleration is most likely to involve the quadriceps and probably the gastrocnemius in the hind limb as well as the supraspinatus and biceps in the front limb. I say "most likely" because, to my knowledge, there are no studies that tell us this for sure. I suspect the iliopsoas is also very important in providing stability to the lumbar spine during deceleration. In our sport dogs, it’s critical to strengthen those muscles in multiple ways and especially eccentrically.


Here’s a video of a dog running on the dog walk. In a couple of repetitions, she’s doing a running dog walk (no stop) and in a couple, she’s doing a stopped dog walk. There’s slow motion at the end of the video - look at the effort for her front and hind limbs as she’s coming into a stopped dogwalk behavior. 





It's really important that the dog be well warmed up prior to a conditioning work out as well as sufficiently cooled down afterward. 

A standard warm-up for my canine athletes would be 2-3 minutes of trotting, backing 8 feet x 3 reps, 3 figure 8s through your legs on the floor, tugging for 15 secs x 2, crawling 8-10 feet, stand to down x 3, stand to sit x 3. If your client balks at this, then their dog isn’t warming up properly prior to competitions. This should be EASY for our canine athletes.



As we all know, a good cool down is also important in preventing injury. Following a conditioning work out, I recommend 2-3 minutes of walking until the dog isn't panting anymore. (Following a competition, I recommend 1-2 minutes of slow trotting then 2-3 minutes of walking until the dog is no longer panting hard.)



Fatigue can be an indication that an exercise (or the whole workout) is too hard. Examples of signs of fatigue include stepping off of the equipment, doing the exercises with poor form, doing the exercises extra slowly (or for some dogs, extra fast), excessive panting, other ways the dog "changes the subject". If the dog is fatigued by one of the exercises, the next time they do the workout, they should do 2 fewer reps - do that for a full week (3 sessions) then start to increase reps again.



Our canine conditioning exercises involve a preponderance of concentric contractions, and as we all know, it's important to start there (or even with isometric contractions if your patient hasn’t yet fully recovered from injury). Eccentric work is fatiguing and difficult and should come after building up strength with concentric workouts. 


A few exercises that help strengthen the quadriceps and gastrocs in dogs include:

Back extension (isometric)

Tugging (concentric)

Controlled rock back sits (eccentric)

Incline squats (think fold back down with the hind end down a hill) (eccentric)

Elevated rock back sits (eccentric)


As it happens, each of those exercises also strengthens the iliopsoas all in a concentric fashion (with the exception of back extensions which are isometric contractions).


A few exercises that help strengthen the supraspinatus and biceps include:

Backing up a hill or stairs (concentric supraspinatus)

Walking downhill (eccentric biceps and supraspinatus)

Tugging (concentric supraspinatus)

Figure 8 over Platform (eccentric supraspinatus and biceps)

Pushups (eccentric supraspinatus and biceps)


As with any exercise program, our patients should start with low reps, easy setups (no inflatables to begin with) and do conditioning no more often than every other day. 


Here's the conditioning video for Decel Level 1 - the exercises should be done in the order given.


I would have my patients start with only 5-10 reps of each exercise and do this level for 4-6 weeks 2-3 times per week. If it's getting easy, I increase the reps OR do two sets of all of the exercises. Believe me, even if it's not sexy, it'll still be valuable!! 


I tell my clients to do only 5 reps per exercise for the first week. It should feel physically pretty easy for a sound, and relatively in shape dog. If the dog does the whole routine without much panting and has good form, then increase the reps by 1-2 the next time - build like that until the dog is doing up to 10 reps in any given exercise. There might be some exercises where the dog is only doing 5 reps while on others they're doing 10.



A high-level IPO competitor said this to me: 

“I’m really liking the figure 8 with the platform. It seems like it would use some of those muscles with quick turns needed on a retrieve. (and other skills!)”




It uses those same muscles and angles. As dogs become stronger, we can speed it up, make the platform higher, or make the platform unstable or we can make it more complicated by putting it on a set of stairs. It helps strengthen everything for a more powerful turn (e.g., retrieve, wrap a jump, turn out of a tunnel, box turn in flyball), but it also helps all of the little stabilizers and makes the joints more able to withstand the pressures of our sports.


Figure 8 on the flat is a really nice part of a warmup prior to competing or training. It's an awesome little exercise.


Here's what it looks like on the large wobble board. Obviously larger dogs would come on and off the wobble board. In fact, I'd probably stand with one foot on a platform and one on the wobble board making sure to change my direction part way through the exercise so that they're wrapping both ways around one of my legs on the wobble board if that makes sense.


So a reasonable progression for the figure 8 weave through your legs would be:

1. Flat ground

2. Low exercise step

3. Higher exercise step (for tall dogs, use cones for the dog to wrap around)

4. Balance disk

5. Stairs / hillside

6. Wobble board


The progression would be done over several months.


Rachel Blackmer, DVM, DABVP (Canine/Feline), CCRT | P: 919.226.0043 | F: 866.272.1484

5601 Fayetteville Rd | Durham, NC 

YouTube: Paws Learning

Dr. Blackmer is a Certified Canine Rehabilitation Therapist. She completed her internship with Sasha Foster, MSPT, CCRT at Colorado State University, focusing particularly on learning to tailor therapeutic exercise plans for canine athletes. She has a passion for optimizing the performance of canine athletes and especially enjoys developing return-to-sport plans for healed athletes so they may attain full function in their sport. She has worked with dogs competing in many sports, including obedience, herding, rally, flyball, and agility. Dr. Blackmer is a diplomate of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners (Canine/Feline) and she attained certification with the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in 1993 and the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association in 1996.


An avid dog agility enthusiast, Dr. Blackmer competes with her Belgian Tervurens locally and regionally. She enjoys conditioning, trick training and is also training to compete in obedience. 

Tags: deceleration , warm up , cool down , fatigue , conditioning , figure of 8 , Rachel Blackmer , Sport dogs

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