Cross-Training Can Add Strength & Endurance to an Agility Dog’s Performance

A dog standing on a blue ball

Agility is a high-drive canine sport. A well-trained athlete maneuvers obstacles with precision and finesse and sprints through the course with powerful drive. Excellent balance, coordination and muscular strength are essential skills to win. 

Top handlers may adapt a conditioning program that incorporates not only training the competition exercises but also strength training and endurance exercises. Cross-training should be an integral part of a conditioning program, say experts. 

“Doing a variety of strengthening exercises will improve a dog’s agility performance and even help protect against injuries,” says Deb Torraca, DPT, MSPT, CCRP, CCMT, a board-certified orthopedic clinical specialist and owner of Wizard of Paws Physical Rehabilitation in Colchester, Connecticut.  

“It is essential to cross-train agility dogs at least weekly and daily, if possible,” Dr. Torraca says. “Cross-training promotes long-term health and wellness and improves performance. A physically and mentally stimulated dog is more likely to perform well.” 

“Cross-training allows activation and strengthening of muscles that support bones and joints, which don’t normally get tasked when training on exercises related to a specific sport,” says Purina Senior Veterinarian RuthAnn Lobos, DVM, CCRT, CVAT. “Cross-training can help with aerobic endurance and give dogs the edge at a multiday event. It also helps to engage their brains with novel activities and commands.” 

Exercises that improve jumping strength and power and improve collecting and turning ability are especially important for agility dogs, Dr. Torraca says. This includes exercises that increase forelimb and hind-limb strength and awareness and that strengthen the quadriceps region to increase core and back strength.  

“Exercises that strengthen the core, which is a dog’s foundation for alignment, are key,” Dr. Lobos says. “Simple things like dog squats, where a dog goes from sit to stand, or dog pushups, where a dog goes from down to sit, are activities that can be integrated into a daily routine.” 

Here is a snapshot of cross-training exercises that Dr. Torraca uses to help strengthen agility dogs. She recommends starting slowly because although the exercises seem simple, they involve doing significant work.  

Hind-end awareness exercises strengthen the gluteral and hamstring muscles used for balance and awareness.  

  • Rocking the Hips: With the dog standing, rock the dog’s hips back and forth until the dog tires. Fatigue will be evident when the dog sits down, moves away from you, lies down or refuses to continue. This can be performed several times a day.  
  • Walking in sand: The softer the sand, the more difficult it will be for the dog to walk. Start on hard-packed sand, if possible, and begin with two to three minute walks with the dog on leash. To increase the intensity, walk the dog for longer distances, up and down embankments and in zigzags.  
  • Walking in figure 8s: Start out with a large pattern that is 6 to 8 feet from point to point for a small/medium dog and 10 to 12 feet for a larger dog. Use cones or poles to give the dog an object to walk around. Set them 2 to 3 feet apart for small dogs and 4 to 5 feet apart for large dogs. Use a leash so as not to confuse the dog with competition weave poles. Initially walk the dog and gradually increase to a trot while also decreasing the distance between the cones.  
  • Walking in water: This can be done in a natural body of water that has a relatively level bottom or on an underwater treadmill. Walking in water is fairly strenuous for the dog, so gradually increase the time to allow the dog to build up endurance. The higher the level of water, the less stress on the dog’s body.  

Gluteral and hamstring exercises build strength in muscles in the back of a dog’s hind limb that are important for extending a dog’s hip and knee and thus provide power for jumping and running.  

  • Dancing: Pick up the dog’s forelimbs and encourage him to walk backward. Holding the dog’s forelimbs stabilizes the pelvis. Do not encourage the dog to walk back on his own. Start with a distance of about 10 feet. Give the dog a short rest and then repeat the exercise three to five times. As the dog becomes stronger, you can increase the distance and repetitions.  
  • Controlled sit to stand: This is equivalent to performing squats without any weight. Back the dog into a corner or up against a wall to avoid excess movement. Use treats to encourage the dog to repetitively sit and stand for sets of eight to 10 done two or three times.  

Quadriceps region and forelimbs exercises strength core and back strength. The quadriceps muscles are located in the front of the thigh and are responsible for extending the stifle when running and flexing the hip. Core strength, or back and abdominal strength, is used in every movement a dog performs in agility, especially when going over a jump.  

To increase strength in the quadriceps region:  

  • Walking through tunnels or under tables. The goal is to have the dog squat to go through the tunnel at a slow to moderate speed. Perform this exercise in sets of five. 
  • Controlled sit to stand as described earlier. 

To increase core stability and back strength:  

  • Hind-limb and forelimb lifts: Lift the left forelimb and the right hind limb into a slight extension and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Then, lift the right forelimb and the left hind limb and hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Do this exercise 10 times each on each side.  

To increase strength of the forelimbs:  

  • Walking down hills: This forces the weight on the forelimbs. A zigzagging descent down the hill is the safest route and places less stress on the forelimbs.  
  • Walking in sand as described earlier.   
  • Wheelbarrowing. Pick up the dog’s hind limbs above his midline or center of the back and walk him forward for a distance of 15 to 20 feet. Increase intensity by increasing the time and by wheelbarrowing the dog down hills. 

Next time you see an agility dog whiz through a Standard course or gracefully perform Jumpers with Weaves, there’s a good chance that a cross-training fitness program underlies the dog’s success. Most important, the journey getting there should be fun for the dog and handler.