Upper Back Exercise for a Dog
A reader recently asked for some suggestion on how to work their dog’s latissimus dorsi muscles (i.e. their upper back). The thought of SlimDoggy Jack doing pullups both made me smile and inspired me to write this piece.
What are the Lats?
Commonly known as the “lats”, the latissimus dorsi is the large muscle on the upper back. It fans across the spine and helps the dog stabilize their body during movement and pull with their front limbs.
Like with humans, the lats can be best be activated with pulling movements. One of the best exercises to visualize this with the human body is the standing pull. With a straight or slightly bent arm, move the bar in an arc from eye level down to the thighs. The lats must be active to perform this move, and you can see in the picture that they are engaged.
Upper Back Exercises for Dogs
One can target a dog’s lats by performing exercises with similar movement patterns to the human standing pull. A few of our favorite exercises to work a dog’s lats include the wheelbarrow, crawling, and digging. As always, check with your veterinarian to make sure that your dog is cleared to perform these movements safely.
Wheelbarrow This is one we use in human fitness and it can be a lot of fun. Lift your dog by the caudal abdomen until the back paws are slightly off the ground (about 2 inches). This alone will start the lat contractions, along with core and front leg activation. Slowly walk the dog forward, forcing them to pull with their front legs, one by one as you support their back legs. Take up to 5 steps per side to get started and you can build up from there.
The wheelbarrow is an advanced exercise and not recommended for dogs with shoulder impairments or back issues.
Crawling As the name applies, this exercise forces the dog to crawl, low to the ground, and forces them to pull with their front legs in order to mobilize. In order to perform the crawl, you will first need to create either a low tunnel of other low obstacles for the dog to crawl under. You can use poles or broomsticks set on a series of chairs. Or try the agility pack from DogTread which work for small and mid-size dogs. Make sure the surface if not slippery so that the dog can move through the drill.
This is a very similar movement to our Labby Limbo drill, although in the crawl you really want your dog to be lower to the ground.
Once your obstacles are set, use a treat or other high value item to entice the dog to slowly duck and crawl under the obstacles. You can set the treats up in a line and let them get them as they move under the obstacles. Use verbal commands to reinforce the drill.
Digging This exercise is probably the most similar to the human standing lat pull. The action of digging requires the dog to extend and then pull back with their limbs. If your dog is not a digger, you can incent them by burying a bag with a “stinky” treats. Once they start to dig, you will see how they must engage the lats and pull the dirt/sand away from the hole and back towards their rear end.
Can you think of other exercises that work your dogs lats?