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Joint injuries are all too common in certain dog breeds. Be they of the ligament, tendon, or bone variety, such injuries can be devastating for dogs, as they can lead to decreased activity levels and health problems such as obesity.
They can be tough on owners too, with knee ligament surgeries generally costing $3000 or more.
But, as with humans, developing your dog's strength -- building her muscle mass and improving her muscle function -- can help to prevent and even treat joint injuries. The veterinary community is pretty much in agreement on that one (1, 2, 3, 4).
In other words, you can significantly improve your dog’s health (i.e., prolong its lifespan and healthspan) by building its muscular strength. That’s good news.
The even better news is that muscular conditioning is surprisingly easy for dog owners.
And the best news of all is that strength training can be really enjoyable for dogs.
Let us show you how to do it.
Canine Strength Training Principles
First of all, it’s necessary to understand the types of movements and behaviors that will make your dog stronger.
The most common form of muscle-building activity is resistance training. A working definition of which is "a form of strength training in which each effort is performed against a specific opposing force generated by resistance.” In other words, the ordinary (unweighted) movement of a body part is opposed and made more difficult by the force generated by some additional stressor.
What kind of additional stressor? It could, in theory, be one of many things. The earth's gravitational force (pulling a weighty object towards the ground). Some rough, frictional surface (making pulling more difficult). The elastic force of a band that wants to contract.
According to the American Sports Medicine Institute, the goal of resistance training is to “gradually and progressively overload the musculoskeletal system so it gets stronger.”
In other words, we need to gradually and progressively load up the relevant movement with our opposing force.
There are only a limited number of variables that can be adjusted in order to accomplish such “overloading”: (1) the amount of force generated by the opposing stressor (i.e., the heaviness of the weight or the elasticity of the strength band), (2) the number of repetitions performed; and (3) the speed with which the repetitions are performed.
So, fundamentally, in order to make your dog stronger, she'll have to perform resistance exercises in a routine whereby total resistance is gradually increased, the total number of repetitions is gradually increased, and/or the speed at which the repetitions are performed is increased.
Of course, there are other factors that must be taken into account in order to ensure that a strength-training program is successful.
For one, muscles must be given proper time to rest. After a muscle is fatigued, its overworked fibers need time to rest and rebuild themselves before they can be productively stressed again. A failure to allow for adequate rest in between strength-training sessions can lead to muscular injuries and diminished results.
Proper technique is important for similar reasons. Exercises should be performed using a full range of motion in order to ensure that overload actually occurs. The relevant body parts should also be properly aligned and supported while performing the exercises. Failure to properly align and support body parts can lead to injuries, which is precisely what we're trying to avoid.
Now, this probably is not the first time that you’ve heard of these general principles. Strength training is an integral part of most human exercise routines and these fundamental guidelines apply with equal force to training in both the human and canine realms. The greater challenge comes when we try to craft a dog-specific set of strength training exercises.
Luckily, we're here to help with that too.
Canine Resistance Training Activities
The most important point to stress is an exercise routine must be enjoyable for the dog performing it.
If a dog does not enjoy the activity that it is being asked to perform its focus will drift and its movements will cease to be purposeful -- thus leading to poor technique and substandard efforts (read: potential injuries).
Perhaps more importantly, dogs should enjoy these activities simply because, as their owners, we care about their happiness. To a degree, asking a dog to perform an activity that it does not enjoy in order to improve its strength is putting the cart before the horse. So pick strength training activities for which your dog is predisposed by genetics or for which it shows clear signs of excitement.
Here are some ideas.
Many large-boned working dogs are bred for load-pulling. This impressive (if somewhat awkward and equipment-intensive) activity simply involves asking a dog to pull a cart loaded down with weight. Carts, harnesses, and other related equipment can be found online, as can detailed instructional materials and other resources.
Owners of standout pull-dogs (notable breeds include pit bull and mastiff varieties, as well as Alaskan Malamutes, Samoyeds, Rottweilers, and husky varieties) might even consider getting their pets involved in weight-pull competitions as a means of deepening the dog-owner bond and having some good old-fashioned competitive fun.
There are numerous organizational bodies that promote and conduct weight-pull competitions and leagues. Less ambitious dog-owner pairs can still derive great pleasure and benefit by loading up a cart with an appropriate weight (perhaps something functional like a load of groceries?) and pulling it up and down the street to the great amusement of neighbors and other onlookers. Weight pulling requires that a dog employ almost all of the “pushing” muscles in its body -- large leg muscles both above and below the knee as well as neck and shoulder muscles.
Another idea is directed play with a large herding ball. Such instruments function as proxy play companions or herding stock with which properly trained dogs interact in a form of mock play. Dogs can be trained (those with strong play drives and herding instincts seem to pick it up without any training whatsoever) to play with large herding balls by gripping the ball with their forelegs, scooting it under their chests, and then dragging the toy around an expanse.
This behavior (check out some videos here) involves the repeated expansion and contraction of the dog’s core muscles as well as a steady contraction of the muscles surrounding the forelegs. Because these large toys are heavy and experience friction when dragged across the ground, a play session with a large herding ball places significant stress upon a dog’s core muscles, as well as the large muscles of the neck and shoulders.
If your dog enjoys retrieving games, consider taking the game to a steep 20-yard uphill slope. Sending the dog up the hill to fetch the retrieving target will add additional stress as the dog is forced to move its own mass upwards against the pull of gravity. This will increase the amount of work performed by the dog’s leg, hip, and shoulder muscles. (If it’s a rainy day you can play this game inside on a flight of stairs.)
Lastly, if your dog enjoys agility work, consider teaching her a set of jumping-related commands. Grab some toys and other equipment (like a sturdy box) and use your imagination to come up with commands: “up [on the box],” “take it [the ring held in my hand at my shoulder level],” etc. Jumping engages the large muscles of the dog’s hind legs and lower core and repetitious jumping provides an excellent workout for those muscles as the dog propels its body up into the air against the force of gravity.
Hopefully it goes without saying, but owners should be particularly mindful of injury potential when it comes to jumping exercises. These are explosive movements, so you'll want to be sure your dog is always on a stable, non-slick surface and always moving in a straight line.
With any of these activities, the idea is to slowly and gradually ask your dog to work harder and harder -- over time, you want to increase the relevant weight load, increase the duration of the resistance activity, and/or increase the speed with which your dog performs the activity. Take it slowly and watch your dog carefully for signs of dehydration and overheating. Also do your best to discourage erratic, side-to-side movement. By encouraging your dog to move in a linear fashion, your ensure that her movements will be properly supported and thus minimize the risk of injury.
That’s it for now. We hope you found value in this article for both you and your dog. Now get out there and pump-up your pup!