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A Pilates Approach to Dog Agility

Control, precision & flow

In general dogs react faster to physical signals than verbal commands so, from time to time, we can send out a signal before we can utter the verbal cue. When we get it wrong, it goes very wrong. That's why it is important to make sure that our body language is accurate as possible. Pilates and dance instructor Stacy Weeks explains how dog agility and Pilates complement each other and how we can use this body mind programme system as an extra arsenal in our tool kit this season If you would like to know more about Pilates and the postural perspective on dog agility, read on...

In 2008, having spent a year in a barn watching my husband have fun with our Staffordshire Bull Terrier X, I got my first Border Collie.  Growing up, we'd always had adorable rescue so I didn't know what I was looking for. Watching the Border Collies move at training, it was their grace and athleticism that struck me the most. I'd always liked them and, as a child I'd had a play farm with sheep and a sheep dog. In fact, I still have that sheep dog model in my office!.

Collies captivated me with their beauty and movement and that was it. I had to have one, so that's when Chace (Brueway Chasing Dreams) came into my life. He's my 'heart' dog, totally devoted to me and willing to work all day, if he could. We're currently only Grade 2 (and a third) so I don't profess to know everything about dog agility, but I do know about movement, stability and the body. I noticed a massive difference in my handling at the end of last season. We had achieved more than we had ever done before. A lot of that was due to some 1:1 training but my body felt stronger than ever, too.

What's all this got to do with Pilates?
As a trained dancer and Pilates instructor, I'm fascinated with bodies, movement and relationships. Dog agility has it all -  a relationship between dog and handler, positioning both body and dog to move efficiently around the course. However, until very recently, I hadn't given a thought to how similar the principles of Pilates were to the mental and physical elements required for dog agility and competition.

We all look at the top handlers in awe, with their precision, control and flow, and that's exactly three of the core principles engaged when we practice Pilates. The main principles are-

  • Breath

  • Co-ordination

  • Concentration

  • Centering

  • Control

  • Flow

  • Precision

There are more, but traditionally these are, what I term, the magic seven. All of these can be applied to the way we work with our dogs in the ring. Centering, for example, is about recognising and focussing on the inside of the body, making a body/mind connection. By focussing before we set off, we make sure we stay centred throughout the run. Next time you are in the ring, walking away from your dog, take that moment to centre yourself before you start. You may be less likely to panic or let the pressure get to you. I was forever being told to breath before I started running Chace. I wasn't applying my own medicine, or those of the master, so to speak. ‘Above all learn how to breath correctly' (Joseph Pilates)

Pilates is a personal journey not a competition.
Pilates was originally called Contrology, a proper and long term practice that enables you to have total control over body and mind in everything that you do for the rest of your life.

‘Contrology is designed to give you suppleness, natural grace and skill that will be unmistakeably reflected in the way you walk, play and work' (Joseph Pilates).

It's a long term programme and you don't have to be flexible or in your 20's to do it. Joseph Pilates puts it so well ‘A man is only as young as his spinal column'. That's why I love it!

Taught correctly in the right environment you really do see and feel the difference no matter how old you are. Many of us work during the week and compete at weekends and in our holidays. We come from all types of backgrounds and span the ages more than many other sports, so we all tend to come into (become addicted to) dog agility from a hobbyist perspective. For that reason alone, it is important to look after ourselves. We need to maintain our bodies as much as the pro's.

Dog agility is rapidly progressing. There are lots of people starting to focus on the competitor as well as the dog, more so now than ever. This both excites and concerns me, I see pictures of camps where people are enjoying themselves getting fit which is great but I also see people doing exercises that they are just not ready to do or in bad positioning. There are some great fitness coaches out there but some have a one size fits all approach, I personally believe this method does not work. We are graded in the ring for a reason so the same applies to our physical selves; you wouldn't do the London Marathon if you had never run more than half a mile before would you?

HundredPhysical fitness training, in basic terms, is about how the body works i.e. what you want it to do and what muscles are required to support that movement. However, I also need to know what is going on with each of the bodies that will be doing all of that so I can make it safe and effective. I want to make sure I give my clients exercises right for their type, level of fitness, posture and the activity they want to do.

Even a group class has individual progressions and regressions per client. Pilates works on stabilising weakness. Learning how to isolate those internal muscles, makes people stronger so their body works more efficiently. For example, lots of the new European handling is requiring our bodies to twist faster than before so whole core control - not just abdominals - is highly important.

To be better handlers, we need to give our dogs more co-ordinated and precise signals, and that's what we are seeing from some of the top handlers. Sit ups and crunches are okay, but classical Pilates exercises like the Hundred (above), Roll Up, Criss Cross and Leg Pull Back Prone all focus on the internal support systems, the local muscles like transverse abdominis, internal obliques, multifidus and pelvic floor. In Pilates, we isolate these muscle groups using positioning called neutral spine, the position of the spine required for optimum execution of exercises. The precision and posture correction gained from working those internal stabilisers could really help us all give our dog's better physical communication.

Single leg stretchPilates also works the body uniformly and doesn't bulk you up. Lots of the exercises use and work on improving coordination, meaning that when your legs are moving this may not be the main focus of the exercise. For instance, Single Leg Stretch (left), a good one for hamstring and hip flexor length and pelvic stability, requires you to move the legs whilst doing specific breath patterning, but the focus is on maintaining and keeping the pelvis stationary.

‘Good posture can be successfully acquired only when the entire mechanism of the body is under perfect control'(Joseph Pilates)

Posture is the most necessary ingredient for movement. In order to move freely in optimum performance, your body can only work at its best in its perfect position and a whole number of factors can alter your posture. Your posture type speaks volumes about your choice of career, lifestyle, emotional state and physicality.

The most common posture type I have walk into my studio is the kypho-lordotic posture type. It's a mixture of the lower and upper cross syndromes relating to scapular and thoracic positioning and lumbar and pelvic/sacral positioning. In short, it means that you have rounded shoulders (kyphosis) and a more pronounced curve in your lower back area (lordosis). A combination of this usually means that the chest and lower back are tight and abdominals and upper back are weak. These muscles are vital for supporting the body in movement.

The kypho-lordotic posture type is mostly associated with sedentary lifestyles or those who have to sit at a desk for long periods of time. Let's face it, not all of us are lucky enough to be working in the dog world. Have a little look in the mirror when you are getting dressed. Don't adjust your posture; really look at what you have to work with. Do your shoulders fall forward? Can you see the back of your hands? When you turn to the side does your lower back have a slight ski jump and your belly stick out? Most importantly do you look even? Look at shoulder, hip, knee and ankle height. Try pulling in your tummy and standing tall. Instantly you look taller, slimmer and more confident.

Applying Pilates to agility
Over the last four months Mid Cornwall Dog Training Club (MCDTC) have taken up the Pilates challenge and some members have been attending a group class at my studio in St. Austell, Cornwall (Red Yew Studio). We have been looking at the effort needed in the ring, the movement we need to train for and stabilising their bodies all in relation to their own goals and physicalities.

There are a mixture of posture types and ages in the class, ranging in age from early 30s to late 70s and from Grade 1 to Grade 7. Many of them had the kypho-lordotic posture type I mentioned above, or they either had just kyphosis or lordosis. We've been working on different stabilising exercises for specific movements. A front cross, for example, requires twisting. The obliques need to be strong to support this action so exercises like ‘Cosack' warm the body for the main phase Intrmediate exercise ‘Criss Cross'.

We also do some upper body strengthening supplementary to the traditional Pilates, stretches for the ring and look at self myofascial release (self-massage) using foam rollers, spiky balls, tennis balls and Kong's™. What has been great to see in this group is the growth in confidence as the postures and strength changes. They have all added at least 40 seconds to their initial plank assessment times - one tripling it! 90% of the people in the class have noticed a change to their ability to run and/or improved mobility the next day. All of them are feeling stronger and can see a difference in their bodies and, so far, most of them have been placed in the top four at the local winter matches!

Joseph Pilates didn't believe that his system was something to be practiced once a week. He meant for it to become an unconscious automatic behaviour that transcribes into life outside of the studio. His method and principles can be applied to everything we do - from baking a cake, pushing a shopping trolley or running our dogs in the ring.

When practiced, Joseph Pilates exercises and principles give us an awareness of our bodies like no other, and that's what the MCDTC group have noticed. They are more aware of their bodies and more confident to move and are applying those methods both inside and outside the ring. When the body is stable and strong, we can perform better. It eliminates the need for the body to cheat to achieve.

We teach our dogs to balance in 'prettys' and stand on wobble cushions. We ask them to control themselves round noodles or precise tight turns and to concentrate and focus whilst following our verbal and physical commands. We train our canine partners to have that control, precision and flow, so surely a good partnership requires the whole team to be doing the same. What I'm trying to say is that we need to look after ourselves as well as our dogs. Good core control gives us the ability to give better direction and less chance for physical command errors. Do we not owe it to them to be just as good as we expect them to be?

Thanks for reading. Want to chat further about this article or arrange a consultation for yourself or your club, email me on perspective@redyew.co.uk or visit my website www.redyew.co.uk

If this article has inspired you to take up Pilates, here's a great article to help you know what to look for in an instructor: http://www.examiner.com/article/how-to-determine-if-you-have-agood- pilates-instructor

About the author...
Stacy Weeks
is a Committee member of Mid Cornwall DTC, a member of Cornwall AC and is currently putting Lauren Langman and some of the Devon Dogs / Absolute DOGS team through their paces. She also trains with Graham Partridge and Lauren Langman.

Stacy has a diploma in traditional Pilates method and is founder/owner of Red Yew Studio. Her classes have been featured in National Geographic Traveller (2012), The Independent (2012) and My Cornwall (2013). Stacy also teaches bare foot balance training called BeamFit™ and runs dance classes for children. Her classes in Pilates are all held at her own studio in St. Austell, Cornwall, where she trains her small group classes and body consultancy sessions, consisting of 1:1 coaching, postural assessments and functional biomechanics analysis.

After suffering a car accident whilst studying dance in 2001, she turned her hand to pub management and, in 2007, she moved back home to Cornwall with her husband. It was there that they took up dog agility.

Stacy returned to university in 2010 and completed a BA honours degree in Dance Theatre, gaining 1st class honours. Her dance film work has won awards at film festivals, and she is currently on a sabbatical from her Masters in research degree at Plymouth University.

Stacy used Pilates to rehabilitate herself after her second car accident and decided to train as an instructor.

First published 27 March 2014