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Teaching Balance & Co-ordination

Why bother?

Just because your dog runs with all four legs, it doesn't mean that he knows how to use them all as efficiently as possible! Balance and co-ordination are fundamental requirements for maximum agility performance. When a dog understands how to use it’s body effectively, it will run more smoothly, efficiently, and powerfully and, therefore, will be faster and less prone to injury. Hannah Banks explains how you can  develop your dogs'  proprioception  by working on foot placement, balance, weight shifting, turning, and back feet awareness.

Good co-ordination and balance is absolutely essential for agility dogs. I have been surprised that so many dogs don't pay much attention to what their back legs are doing – but then why should they? In normal dog life, they usually do fine just following the front ones!

In the course of canine evolution, racing along high narrow planks, negotiating twisting jumping courses at high speeds, braking sharply, weaving, and so on, are extremely recent requirements. Dogs' hind legs contain the largest and most powerful muscles, and a dog will only reach its full potential in agility if it can engage them in a controlled and efficient way. Improving balance and co-ordination will enable dogs to:

  • Find agility obstacles easier to negotiate which means that during training they will get it right more often, get rewarded more and subsequently learn and progress faster.
  • Find fast, accurate movements easier, resulting in less chance of hitting equipment awkwardly, reducing the chance of accidents and injury, reducing the possibility of knocked poles, and producing more accurate, controlled negotiation of contact equipment.

When should you think about training co-ordination and balance?
Ideally this type of training should begin quite early on in your dogs agility career. However, it can benefit dogs at all stages in their life. The sort of exercises that are of benefit can also develop or maintain core muscle group strength. Even dogs that do not seem to have a problem could benefit from improved core muscle strength and balancing high impact agility activities with more subtle muscle fine-tuning. You could use the exercises as a warm up before competing or training, or teach new tricks at home when the weather is horrible outside!

Puppies and teaching co-ordination and balance for agility
Agility is a highly demanding athletic sport for dogs. While we should be wary of letting puppies exercise in a way that might damage growing bones and joints (e.g. repetitive high impact activities), they are capable of learning a great deal very fast. This is a perfect time for them to learn to work with you, and also to learn how to balance and co-ordinate their movements in preparation for the future. By helping them to learn how to use their bodies effectively, young dogs will be more physically capable of learning how to negotiate the different agility obstacles more easily when that time comes.

Background Fitness
Twisting, braking, landing impact, and sharp turning movements are demanding on muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints and bones. A dog must be fit in order to be able to do all these things.

The type of exercises that develop co-ordination and balance will help develop large and small muscle groups that 'fine tune' exact movement. These muscles also help stabilise joints, and, therefore, protect them against excessive movement leading to wear between the joints, or overstretching that may lead to injury. Strong muscles help protect the joints and back from injury, as anyone with back problems who undertakes pilates classes, or professional rugby players who take regular hard knocks that less well muscled mortals could not endure, will tell you. It is extremely unfair to submit an unfit dog to such a demanding athletic sport as agility.

Co-ordination and balance exercises

Foot placement
Ladder work is probably the best known and most widely used introduction to co-ordination and balance, a simple but effective way to help develop proprioception and kinaesthesia. You can use a suitable stepladder laid down on the floor, a specially prepared frame, or a line of cardboard boxes (some physiotherapists do not like to see ladders used because they are solid and unforgiving should the dog stumble and hit a rung). The idea is for the dog to very slowly step its way through, placing each of its feet accurately within the framework. The slower this is done the better, as more muscle control is required.

In the photo, Zazzy is learning to accurately place all four feet between the rungs of a ladder as she walks slowly through. The handlers' luring hand is low and close to the ladder to encourage her to concentrate on her foot placement. The dog should walk as slowly as possible! The height of the ladder rungs are slightly lower than her hock height, but still plenty high enough for her to have to concentrate on lifting each leg. You can see she is concentrating very hard and has engaged muscles in her back to lift her hind legs high enough.

Balancing on unstable surfaces
The use of rocker boards, wobble boards, balance cushions etc. help develop both balance and confidence. Physiotherapists advocate the use of these after injury to develop physical balance, reflexes and rehabilitation of weaker areas of the body, as it prevents favouring stronger areas. Some dogs hate the feeling of things moving as they step on them, and so it is important to build up in tiny increments what you ask of your dog, and make sure everything is safe and fun.

Weight shifting
Great control and balance is required to negotiate steep downwards slopes. The dog needs to learn to engage its hind legs underneath it, so that it can rock its weight backwards and use the powerful back leg muscles to control movement, this will decrease the amount of strain and impact on the shoulders and allow better balance and ability to brake, turn or accelerate as required. Most dogs naturally engage their powerful hind leg muscles when going uphill, but you can also teach them to rock their weight back when going downhill by asking them to move very slowly down slopes, or to reverse uphill.

Bending, curving, turning
A flexible strong spine is vital in agility. You can ask your dog to walk round cones, teach it to weave through your legs, or when stationary bend round to get a treat held to the left or right (you can add degrees of difficulty by doing this when your dog is standing on a wobble board or cushion).

Front and back feet doing different things
I find a pill-shaped inflatable fitness ball is the easiest thing to start with. I place the ball between us and make sure that it is securely wedged up against my legs. Then I lure the dog towards me so that it steps up on the ball with its front feet, and reward it while it is standing, not flopping onto its elbows. Once it is confident standing up on the ball with just its front feet, I carefully and slowly take a small step backwards. Because the dog has its weight pushing the ball towards me, the ball rolls back until it is against my legs again, and the dog keeps its front legs on the ball by walking forwards with its hind legs.

You can use this as the starting point to getting the dog to walk along behind the ball around the room, or transfer it onto a skateboard, or transfer it onto a box or tin and teach the dog to move its hind legs around in a circle while the front legs stay on the box or tin (commonly called the elephant trick). The ball can be used for many other tricks, however I would urge caution in taking care to prevent the dog slipping or falling from the ball.


Zazzy on a pill shaped inflatable fitness ball. The handler is luring her front feet up onto the ball with one hand, and stabilising the ball with the other hand plus both feet.

Tricks
On a rainy winter's day, what better way to develop your working relationship with your dog as well as building up co-ordination and balance than to teach your dog some tricks?


Here are a few ideas:-

  • Teach your dog to circle left and right to a verbal cue. This not only gives directional training which will be useful in a future agility career, but also the movement helps the dog to become more balanced and be aware of all four feet.

  • Walk backwards. This also excellent for helping with balance and co-ordination.

  • Position changes, for example getting the dog to go from a down to a stand; and sit-stand-sit etc.

  • Bow (stretching out the front legs, while keeping its bottom up in the air).

  • Giving a front paw, or waving.

  • Giving a back paw

  • Sitting up /begging

  • Balancing (on three legs, or if really advanced on two legs).

  • Catching toys or treats

  • Targeting with front or back feet. Going to a mat or teaching the dog to target objects with the front or back feet

  • ‘Elephant' (standing front legs on a low, stable box or tin, and getting the dog to move its hind legs in a circle around it)

  • Getting into a box

  • Weaving through your legs

There are many more tricks you can teach your dog which can be found freely on the internet. Some examples are below. You can also discuss ideas with your trainer(s) and friends.

Other web sites which might be of use include:-

In conclusion,
Adding a few fun tricks or exercises to your dogs' routine could be of great benefit. Like cross-training, it is a more holistic approach to your dogs' fitness. Start with just a little and build up both quantity and difficulty of what you are asking very gradually. The dogs' muscles will be working hard even though you may not immediately be able to see it. Just like sit-ups or press-ups, just because you are not running flat out and breathing hard, that does not mean that your muscles aren't working hard! If you teach your dog some tricks, that will also have the added benefit of building your relationship with your dog, a winning situation all round!

Well that is a quick overview - the tip of the iceberg really! If you would like to know more, please do come along to one of my workshops which are advertised on Agilitynet.

Feedback

From Pavla Duskova...
I got into the article by chance while searching on the internet. I liked it so much! Thank you!


About the author...
Hannah Banks first had a go at agility around 1998 when an unruly adult merle collie called Boogie came to live with her. They were asked to leave their obedience class because he was 'disruptive!’  So they tried agility instead. Boogie got on much better with agility ; once they started competing, he quickly took her from Elementary to Senior, and she was well and truly bitten by the agility bug.

Hannah now has four collies. In 2000 a brown tri WSD puppy, Becky (Wildkap Wannabe) came into her life. Although Becky was very hesitant and unconfident to start with, she went on to think that agility is the best fun a dog can have! Agility took over Hannah's life and she began travelling around the country to go to shows, meeting some great and inspiring people and seeing some beautiful parts of Britain along the way. Becky  reached Advanced status, winning The Voice points and The Eye points for two years, winning finals at Supadogs and DIN, qualifying both for Olympia and Crufts twice each, and winning one Championship certificate plus many reserves.

Then in 2004, along came another puppy, this time a black and white Border Collie called Kaydee (Waggerland Wildcard). Her enthusiasm was incredible! Unfortunately her downfall as well, she had a collision out on a walk when she was 16 months old that nearly crippled her, and although she appeared to recover, by the time she was four she had recurring physical problems and Hannah felt it best that she retired from agility. A lot of what she learnt from physiotherapists, chiropractors and osteopaths has gone into the structure of her co-ordination and balance workshops. Despite her short agility career, Kaydee reached Grade 7 and qualified for Olympia. She is a very motivated little dog and is terribly frustrated by not being allowed to do agility any more. She has, however, shown a great talent for working sheep, and training other members of the family.

Hannah now has two young dogs - Zazzy (Zazz Ma Girl) who currently runs in Grade 5, and Deece, a gorgeous black and white collie X with a bit of beardie who is not yet old enough to compete.

Hannah wanted to say how grateful she is to all those helpful, fantastic people who have given her assistance, support, advice, and most importantly, friendship over the years, and hopes that the good people in agility will continue to always vastly outnumber the bad. There always seems to be a lot still to learn, and now as an Agility Club Approved Instructor (ACAI), Hannah continues to have an avid interest in the ways dogs move and how training methods and courses can be improved. Her hope is that our sport can continue to develop in a professional, intelligent, positive, objective and above all, safe way for our dogs.

First published 01/02/11