Canine Core Strengthening

Foundation Conditioning

by Emma Overend and Roz Davies

There is a lot of interest in canine conditioning, and many dogcs and their handlers are doing activities that have the aim of ‘core conditioning’. Here we explore what ‘conditioning’ is, and why correct core conditioning is invaluable for your dog, whatever their age or fitness level.

Every dog working with us starts with Foundation conditioning to create core strength from the inside out, to stabilise posture and alignment.

We teach dog enthusiastists, competitors, therapists and trainers our science and research based Foundation 2 day workshops. And for handlers wanting canine specific sport science there is the CCA Instructor programme. It teaches all elements of total fitness covering balance, flexibility, strength, range of motion and utilises neuromuscular techniques new to the world of canine conditioning.

We started the Canine Conditioning Academy from a conversation about common canine injuries, which we believe can be directly linked to weak ‘cores’. So the challenge was to discover if there were facts to back up our opinions. Our view is that a weak core is invariably due to overdevelopment of superficial muscles in puppyhood – at the cost of under-development of the deep stabilising and core muscles. In addition most dogs are poorly connected between brain and back legs, the back legs just following on, and lack conscious control.

This is where a conditioning programme, as opposed to canine physical fitness sessions or sport specific training, will be invaluable. A definition is that ‘Conditioning exercises are body movements that increase athletic skill and physical fitness while decreasing the likelihood of sports injuries’. (Wisegeek.)

Foundation fitness – CCA research based scientifically proven exercise and stretching programme

So our next step was to devise body movements that will redress the poor core activation. Our Foundation Conditioning Programme was developed from remedial techniques for humans, horses and dogs. Importantly for us it is based upon current and credible scientific research that establishes that selected movements, performed correctly, switch ON core muscles.

The 6 week CCA programme, taught on Foundation 2 day workshop, uses specific core strengthening exercises and stretches. All dogs, whatever breed, age, apparent physical fitness and competitive levels will start with our Foundation level before they can progress to Intermediate and Advanced Conditioning. At all levels the activity items are easy to set up and source and we don’t use instability equipment. We use clear static and dynamic assessments to really look at each dog. It’s eye opening to see what apparently fit dogs find really difficult!

CCA Canine Condition Assessments - 2 Exercises to Test Your Dog’s Core, Posture and Muscle Recruitment

Try out some dynamic assessments below. It’s challenging for you and your dog to to use slow control to test and target muscle groups. Safety note, please read all through before you start.

Leg Lifts

HUMAN: when standing, lift one leg off the floor by 5 to 10cm, hold for at least 15 secs. Do both legs, which one is better/easier? As a biped this exercise is more about balance than engaging core. Repeat with your arms folded across your chest. For some fun try this exercise with your eyes closed, there is science to explain why this is more difficult!

CANINE: In order for a quadruped to have an easy balance on three legs they need to engage their core. With your dog stood square, and ensuring neck and spine are in a natural relaxed alignment lift one front paw off the ground. Lift front leg gently from behind and above the wrist, and raise from the ground by only 3 or 4 cms, take into account the size of the dog! A small leg lift is enough, with a short hold up to 10 seconds. Work around each leg. With the back leg hold behind the leg below the hock, make a small lift to clear the ground and so that the dog is standing on 3 legs. Is each leg lift soft, smooth and easy? Does the dog resist the lift? If so stop and put the paw back on the floor. Does each leg feel the same weight in your hand? Are some legs easier than others? Does your dog find it easy to balance on three legs when stood square, or do they lean or become unsteady? This is a good test to see how quickly and effectively your dog engages it’s core. As a quadruped this is about stability using the core, not just a balance exercise.

Active Sits

HUMAN: Stand in front of the chair you are going to sit on. Very, very slowly sit into the chair. Repeat 3 more times, even more slowly. Did both sides work the same or was one side different as your muscles really worked to make the sit? When sitting down, put one hand on each cheek of your backside and very slowly go from sit to stand. Did you feel the squeeze of the biggest muscles of your body, the gluteals? They should contract to move you to a standing position. Or, did your knees go in towards each other as you incorrectly used muscles on the front of your legs to stand up from sit? Poor gluteal recruitment can change posture, cause lower back pain and knee joint issues.

CANINE: With your dog standing in front of you, and with their neck in a neutral position (not looking up to you, with a small dog you may need to sit on the floor) ask the dog to sit, slowly. Repeat 5 more times aiming for slow sits. Observe the positioning, are the legs square to the body equally on both sides? Is it a slump without muscular control or are there tight areas which prevent your dog from being comfortable in a square sit? Does it increase in difficulty with repetition/slowness? Is squareness maintained?

Then you are going to ask the dog for a sit to stand. The aim is to observe the way that your dog pushes up from the back legs. If they have to move forward with front legs during the slow, active stand, that is fine unless they are pulling forward to use front end to achieve the stand position. Repeat 5 times, keep neck in natural alignment. Does the stand, pushing up with back legs, use slow and even movement with each leg working the same way? Does the dog finish the active sit to stand in a square stood position? Does the slow movement tire your dog? In the same way as in humans, your dog may not be able to use the correct muscles to push up from a sit. They may not understand how to slowly push up, a move which requires stability, core control and brain to back legs connection.

At our workshops we like to get the humans and dogs engaging specific muscle groups as part of structured static and dynamic assessments! It is fun and also very informative. We believe it’s necessary to establish your dog’s initial condition against specific starting points, to ensure your dog is fit to train and to provide you with ‘before and after’ repeatable measures.


Foundation Two day workshop dates: March 24 + 25, April 14 + 15 and New date is: May 10 + 11 2018

CCA Foundation, a 2-day workshop for you and your dog. Learn our assessment methods and a 6 week science based exercise programme to switch on the core. CCA Instructor programme follows, which teaches you at Intermediate and Advanced level. 6 in-depth assessment methods and current sports science theory. Licensed CCA instructors design safe, science based programmes and instruct classes for individuals, clubs and any canine activity groups.

Contact us to arrange CCA Conditioning classes, a Club talk or host a stand where Instructors can provide free Canine Condition Assessments – active assessments, which include posture, core strength and flexibility, and feedback about your dog's fitness and condition. 2-day courses awards 16 hours CPD. Courses accredited by UK Rural Skills


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Emma Overend and Roz Davies run the Canine Conditioning Academy; It’s the result of over 25 years of experience in bodywork and rehab in equine, human and canine.

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