Strength Training for Dogs: Working Shoulders with the High Five
There are many different exercises that can be used to strengthen a dog’s body and improve their muscle tone and athletic performance. I generally classify canine strengthening exercises into 3 categories: front leg focused, hind leg focused, and core focused. For most dogs, the front limbs take the brunt of the load during the course of normal movement patterns. However, this is not to suggest that the front limbs should be ignored when it comes to strength exercises. Working the front legs through different ranges of motion and under different load patterns can keep the front legs strong and functioning well throughout a dog’s entire lifespan. Today, I will introduce the high five progression, a rather simple, yet effective front leg strengthening exercise for a dog that can really work the shoulder area.
The High Five Progression for Shoulder Strength
The high five progression is a set of exercises that a dog owner can train their dog to perform. The general idea is to have the dog lift their front legs up while they are seated. This movement pattern forces the dog to engage primarily their shoulder muscles, their core, and their upper back, in order to perform the exercise.
Level 1- Give me your Paw
This is the most basic of the exercises in this progression. The dog is seated, and they will raise their front leg to the handler’s hand. The handler will ‘catch’ the dog’s paw, praise the dog, and then release the paw back to the floor. One of the subtle tweaks that I make with this is to catch, hold, and gently stretch the leg up past the range of motion that the dog would do by themselves, thereby providing enhanced flexibility in addition to the strength work. The handler can also work a gentle stretch in a circular fashion, preparing the dog for the wave, the 3rd part of this progression.
Level 2- High Five
Once the dog is able to give their paw on command, the next progression is the high five. Here, the dog raises their leg and attempts to touch their paw to the handler’s hand. The handler should start with their hand at about the same location as the give me your paw, and then move it up and laterally from there as the dog learns the drill.
Level 3- Wave
The most advanced of the high five progression is the wave. Here, the dog is trained to lift their front leg into the air and mimic a waving motion. This is usually more difficult for the dog because they have no specific target (i.e. the handler’s hand) and they are forced to hold their leg up all by themselves.
Each of these exercises can be made more difficult by having the dog hold the movement for a minimum of 5 seconds, with progression to 10 second or more. It is critical that each exercise is done for the same number of reps for each front leg, unless there is an existing muscle imbalance that is being addressed.
For those of you who might think that having a dog lift and hold their leg up is not much of a strength drill, I will relate my own experience in the Yoga room. There are many yoga postures that require the practitioner to hold their arms overhead (by their ears) or out front (for balance) for extended periods of time. The half-moon and chair poses in the Bikram sequence are two good examples. When I first began practicing, I found that the hardest aspect of these postures was holding up my arms. The burn in the shoulders can get quite intense. Now that I am a bit more experienced, I notice that many yoga students struggle holding their arms up for the entire pose and will often lower their arms in the middle of the posture (not good, Namaste). You can bet that your dog will get a similar type of shoulder workout by practicing the high five progression as well.