Exercise Alternatives for Senior Dogs

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Last week we provided some general tips on exercising your senior dog.  This week we are going to provide some specific exercises that you can do with your senior dog to ensure that their muscles are worked in a balanced fashion.  In fact, these exercises can be used with dogs of any age, not just seniors; they target often neglected muscles and proprioception (the body’s ability to sense movement within joints and joint position) pathways and are relatively low-impact movements that dogs of any age and physical condition can perform.  As always, we recommend that you check with your vet before making changes to your dog’s exercise regimen and work around or skip moves that might not be appropriate for their specific condition.

 Components of a Smart Fitness Program

Before we begin with the canine exercises, let’s take a step back and look at how our human fitness routine as changed as we age.  As an older athlete who is fast approaching AARP status, I have learned firsthand of the benefits of functional and variable training methods.  Our routines are much different than when we were younger (and more naive).   In order to reduce injury risk and maintain competitive in our activities, we now incorporate five main ‘types’ of training into our normal routines:

  1. Strength: preserving muscle mass and strength is crucial as we age.  The body will lose muscle naturally as we age unless we do something about it.  We use a lot of multi-joint exercises to target the larger muscles and nervous system.
  2. Cardio: we need a strong heart to live a strong life.  Plus, intense cardio can burn a lot of calories and keep our weight down.
  3. Core: the core is the key to our alignment and power.  Having a strong core and knowing how to engage it during activity increases performance and lowers injury risk.
  4. Unilateral and Balance: as we age, our balance skills deteriorate and muscle imbalances become more obvious, which puts us at risk for injury.  We train unilaterally to make sure that our muscles are equally strong on each side and direction and we use balance drills to hone and maintain our proprioception.
  5. Prehab/Range of Motion (ROM): we now include lots of ‘prehab’ moves into our routines.  These include both ROM movements as well as other mobility techniques to keep our bodies aligned and pliable.

While writing that list, I realized any one of those items alone could be the sole topic of a post or a series of posts, so we will put those in the queue for future FitDog Fridays.  For now, we will just say that we use the same overall approach to canine fitness and the example exercises below conform to that philosophy.

4 Great Exercises for Senior Dogs (and dogs of any age)

K9FITvest_down-dog1. Down Dog (ROM)

This one comes courtesy of our friends at DogTread and is a fantastic warm up/ROM movement for your dog (and their human!).  Down Dog is done to improve flexibility and to increase circulation.  Note: If your dog avoids stretching exercises, you may want to visit your vet as it could be in indication of an underlying ortho problem.

To perform this exercise, you may need a “high-value” treat for a lure. With your dog standing, bring the treat just a few inches below the nose and slowly lower the treat until the front elbows touch the ground.  Make sure that the hind legs are still in the standing position, which activates the stretch.  We recommend 5-10 reps while holding the down position for 5 seconds or more.

Progressions: Add instability using a balance cushion under the hind legs.

For a more detailed explanation of this move, check out: http://dogtread.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/DownDog.pdf


2. Walk on Log

Walk on a Log

Walk on a Log (Balance/core)

The walk on a log is a great balance and core movement for your dog.  It is similar to the balance cushion drills that we do, but in this exercise, the body is moving and therefore, the stabilizing and core muscles are forced to contract while the dog is in motion—which we believe is a more functional (and difficult) way to train for balance .

To perform this exercise, you need to find a log or similarly shaped item that is long enough for your dog to be able to take several steps. It should be close enough to the ground so that they can easily mount and dismount without the possibility of causing harm.  Once your dog is on the log, walk them forward until they reach the end or have taken 5 steps forward with each paw. Turn around and walk back in the other direction.  We like to do a minimum of 4 sets. We use treats to help Jack get the hang of it.

Progressions: To make it harder for your dog, you can progress to narrower logs or use a weighted vest.

Here is a picture of SlimDoggy Steve doing a similar movement on his foam rollers.
This is hard but a great drill for humans!

3. Sit to Sit Pretty (Strength/Core/Balance)

Sit Pretty

Sit Pretty

This is another movement recommended by DogTread and one that some of our readers are familiar with.  It provides a great way to build strength and will challenge the dog’s core and balance as well.  To perform this exercise, start with your dog in a seated position. Using a high value treat, lift the treat slowly straight up and aligned with the center of their body until their front limbs come off the ground.  We recommend 5-10 reps while holding the up position for 5 seconds or more.

Progressions: You can add resistance using a weighted vest to make the movement harder. If your dog is very well conditioned and practiced at this move, adding a balance cushion under the hind legs will markedly increase the difficulty.

For a more detailed explanation of this move, check out: http://dogtread.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/SitToSitPretty_Strength.pdf


4. Walk in Water (Strength)

Walk in Water

Walk in Water

Using water as an exercise tool is smart and provides many benefits to your dog.  First of all, water provides buoyancy and thus, as your dog enters the water, they are de-loading and effectively reducing the weight on the joints.  Needless to say, water is great for older and rehabbing dogs because it allows for movement with less stress on the body.  Water also is an effective resistance tool and can build strength and work the muscles in ways that are often neglected.  The water actually makes it harder to move the limbs—almost as if there are weights strapped to the legs.  Have you ever tried walking or running in the pool?

To perform the exercise, find a body of water (pool, lake, stream, etc.) with water that is at least elbow high but not so deep that your dog will want to swim.  Have your dog walk back and forth for 10 yards in each direction. We like to do a minimum of 4 sets.

Progressions: To make it harder, increase the distance or the depth (but not so deep that the dog is swimming, which is an entirely different exercise).

Knee Weights
Here is a picture of SlimDoggy Steve doing a similar movement using knee weights.  These weights mimic the action of walking/running in water because the weight load is maximal when the limbs are moving for locomotive purposes.

Work each of these moves into your dog’s regular fitness routine.  I guarantee that they will be glad that you did!

How about you – any additional ideas on balanced exercise routines?


fitDogFriday_avatarPlease enjoy our FitDog Friday Blog Hop brought to you by SlimDoggy and our co-hosts Peggy’s Pet Place and To Dog With Love. Join the Hop or just enjoy the links below – lots of fun fitness tips and advice!

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  1. Great Tips as always & love the focus on the Senior Pets. After having the 2-weeks rest from our bike rides have started to realize how important it is to mix-it-up exercise wise with the dog. Funny though, the first exercise DOWN DOG Scooter always does himself before we go for the ride in the morning. Has 2-3 good stretches like this as we make our way to the gate. Clever pup!!
    Paws and Pedals (Kate & Scooter) recently posted…Canine Challenge – Fun Run/Walk your DogMy Profile

    • Stretching, and in particular down dog, are instinctive movements for dogs. It is how they self-maintain their mobility and strength.

      If you ever notice your dog stops stretching naturally, it could be a sign that something is bothering them and a vet visit is a good idea.
      steve recently posted…Exercise Alternatives for Senior DogsMy Profile

  2. Very helpful post! Even just a simple “paw” or “high five” is great balance work (and deltoids stretch) for any fit dog!
    Bethany recently posted…National Lighthouse Day at Alki Point LighthouseMy Profile

    • Good suggestions, thanks. Got to stretch those deltoids! So do the humans who sit in front of the computer all day.
      steve recently posted…Exercise Alternatives for Senior DogsMy Profile

  3. Number 4 is my favourite! I do that at every opportunity. It’s also a great way of keeping cool while exercising in the summer.
    Clowie recently posted…Where’s my doggy?My Profile

    • Yes, it water walking is a great way to stay cool in the summer. Make sure to mix in some of the other moves as well from time to time. They can really help. Have your human do them also!
      steve recently posted…Exercise Alternatives for Senior DogsMy Profile

  4. Fantastic post and really good tips! Walking on a log is the only thing I don’t do with Kayo so I’m going to take her to the beach to do that. The progressions are also great so there’s always room for challenge! Thanks for this post!
    BoingyDog recently posted…When Animal Shelters Do It RightMy Profile

    • Progressions are important to ensure that your dog, well, progresses! With any exercise, start with the basics and slowly add ‘tweaks’ to make the move more difficult and more effective at building muscle/endurance/ROM, etc..
      steve recently posted…Exercise Alternatives for Senior DogsMy Profile

  5. Hi Y’all!

    With the high waters this year and the threat of the gators I’ve been walkin’ and runnin’ in shallower waters close to the pier where my Human can see the bottom and is sure no evil lurks.

    Thanks for hosting another great fitness Friday!

    Y’all come by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog
    Hawk aka BrownDog recently posted…Follow Up, Round Up and AnswersMy Profile

  6. Brown dawgs have the walking in water down. But of course they are usually running…lol. Thanks for the great tips. I guess we do some of those without planning to. 🙂
    2 brown dawgs recently posted…Follow-up Friday 8-9-13My Profile

    • Running in water is good too! We suggest walking for older dogs who might not be able to run as much.
      steve recently posted…Exercise Alternatives for Senior DogsMy Profile

      • I wish Thunder would walk. He has that ligament injury from last year and we worry that he might re-injure because he still runs so hard.
        2 brown dawgs recently posted…Follow-up Friday 8-9-13My Profile

  7. I have let my sister read this since she is the senior dog. Some great things to try out here and we will! Thanks for sharing!
    emma recently posted…Ahhh The Flowers | GBGV | See BeautifulMy Profile

    • Thanks Emma. We suggested these moves for Senior’s because they are low impact. However, they are actually suitable for dog’s of any age and can help younger dogs build more balanced muscles and reduce their risk of injuries. So, Emma, we challenge you to work these in your weekly routine! You up for it?
      steve recently posted…Exercise Alternatives for Senior DogsMy Profile

      • Oh great! My sister and I do most everything together and I thought I found something she could do alone. I guess Mom will have both of us doing these exercises, I need to stay fit too for my wabbit and squirrel hunting!
        emma recently posted…Ahhh The Flowers | GBGV | See BeautifulMy Profile

  8. Great Senior exercises. Love the pictures especially Steve’s. The old dogs seem to loose muscle mass in their back legs first when seniors, so very important to do exercises to try and maintain their muscle mass.
    joann stancer recently posted…Follow-Up Friday/{This Moment} See Beautiful-CanadaMy Profile

  9. Right on…all fitness programs – human or canine – need to incorporate all aspects of fitness to be beneficial. Too much of one thing is never a good thing and often results in injury. Key is to mix it up – train the whole body….and let’s not forget mental fitness – the other brick needed for a strong program. Strong body doesn’t necessarily equate to strong mind – both need exercising!

  10. Great suggestions. If walk on log (or anything that requires balance) builds core muscles, Gretel is the core queen 🙂 Every time we pass anything she can jump on and walk on, she does. It’s really pretty cute. She is a natural athlete for sure.

    I am passing your post onto one of my Doxie fans. However, the sit pretty should not be encouraged for senior Doxies (and maybe not some younger ones either) due to their long spine inherent back problems. Chester likes to pull that one out when he really wants treats though 🙂
    Jessica recently posted…Holy Crap, I Found an Old Man In My HouseMy Profile

    • Hi Jess- yes, the sit pretty could be a move that is not optimal for most doxies so caution is the smart way to go.

      Gretel is a core queen, huh? Our lab Maggie is more like a “queen at her core”.
      steve recently posted…Exercise Alternatives for Senior DogsMy Profile

  11. These are all great ideas for dogs and humans with joint issues (like my rice krispie knees)…congrats on being the lead story in the inaugural issue of Paws Tech Magazine today! http://myemail.constantcontact.com/PawsTech-Magazine–vol–1–iss–1.html?soid=1113711098504&aid=nfC4l0hFHoI
    GizmoGeodog recently posted…Geocache Primer for Geodog DayMy Profile

  12. Thanks so much for the tips. It never occurred to me to look for easier exercises for our dogs when they were suffering from joint pain. We could easily do most of these at home. And I love an excuse to take our dogs to the beach.
    Kimberly Gauthier recently posted…Creating Dog Friendly House with a PlexiDor Pet Door @PlexiDor #PetDoorStyleMy Profile

  13. These are all great exercises and we look forward to giving them a try. I love #4….we have a lot of streams around here and I usually think they are not much use other than for cooling the dogs down. It never occurred to me that walking in them could be good for them too!
    Jan K recently posted…FitDog FrustrationsMy Profile

    • Thanks Jan. Water can add a nice change of pace and work those legs in very unique and needed ways.
      steve recently posted…Exercise Alternatives for Senior DogsMy Profile

  14. What great tips! We are going to have to use some of these. Davinia loves walking on narrow ledges so I bet she would do really well walking on logs.
    Felissa (Two Little Cavaliers) recently posted…Simple Ways You Can Help Your Local Animal ShelterMy Profile

    • Let us know how she does. IT is really the same thing except that the log has a less stable surface.
      steve recently posted…Happy BarkDay Sugar!My Profile

  15. How about agility? Weave poles provide lateral motion, the A-Frame and Cat Walk provide ramps to go up and down, teeter-totters provide balancing exercises…and there’s so much more!
    Andrea recently posted…Pooch SmoochesMy Profile

    • Absolutely, we’re planning to do a whole post (or two) on the excellent exercise that agility provides.
      mkob recently posted…Black & White Sunday 8-11-13My Profile

  16. Excellent tips both for humans and canines. Sampson still rushes out the door for his walks but I notice he tires a bit easier and it’s nice to know what exercises I should be doing to help him stay fit.
    Jodi recently posted…I Feel Like a NumberMy Profile

  17. I think one of the mistakes many senior dog owners do is decide that their senior dog ‘needs to take it easy’ simply because it’s a senior. Maintaining a dog’s level of fitness is great for maintaining their health. But, if a senior dog seems to be acting uncomfortable, that is a sign of concern! Arthritis and other issues should be treated and not tolerated.

    Just my two cents. 🙂
    Tegan recently posted…Dog breeding isn’t always pretty.My Profile

    • You are absolutely right. Puppies and younger dogs aren’t very good at self-regulating, but I find that our seniors are. They know their limits and will give you some clear signals if they are too tired to do something. It’sjust a matter of paying attention to your dog. Thanks for stopping by.
      mkob recently posted…Black & White Sunday 8-25-13My Profile

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