Conditioning for Dogs: Everyday Fitness to Canine Athletes 

By Britt Kascjak

Are you getting prepared to start focusing on trick training with your dog? Have you considered introducing your dog to canine sports?

Physical conditioning is important not only for humans but also for your dog. This will help to improve your dog’s performance and reduce the risk of injury.

The good news is that physical conditioning is something that every dog owner can do from home!

What You Will Need

  • Standard dog leash and collar or harness
  • High-value treats for motivation
  • Training clicker
  • Shallow storage bin
  • Canine exercise disc or Wobble board

How to Condition Your Dog for General Health

Step One: Determine Your Goal

When conditioning your dog, even if it’s for general health, you need to have a goal.

Are you focusing on taking your dog for longer walks? Do you enjoy swimming and want to introduce your dog to that fun?

You can’t decide on the right path unless you know what destination you want to reach.

Step Two: Consider Your Dog’s Health

Before starting, take a moment to consider your dog’s health and fitness level. Does your dog have any injuries that you need to consider?

If your dog is in their golden years, you may need to approach conditioning with caution.

You want to push your dog enough to allow them to grow stronger and more flexible. But, senior dogs are more susceptible to injuries than a healthy, adult dog.

On the other end of the spectrum, avoid pushing a young puppy too hard. As your puppy grows, their growth plates will slowly close and fuse to create stable bone.

Most puppies will mature by approximately 18 months old, but it can take longer. This will depend on your dog’s breed and size.

Pushing your puppy too hard before the growth plates have fused can cause injuries. These injuries can have a life-long lasting impact.

Regardless of where your dog falls, don’t let this stop you. Every dog can enjoy the benefits of conditioning. But, you will need to adjust your efforts to meet their needs.

Step Three: Start with A Warm-Up

Before you jump into conditioning your dog, start by warming up. Depending on your dog’s prior activity level, this could be as simple as a walk around the block.

A great warm-up activity is the doggy push-up. This involves having your dog sit, move to a down position, and back to sit. Keep repeating this for your desired number of reps.

As your dog’s fitness level increases, you can move to asking your dog to stand up with each push-up.

Make sure to use high-value treats to motivate your dog throughout the process. Especially if this is a new experience!

Step Four: Introduce Stretching

Keeping your dog limber is a great way to hold off the impacts of aging. You can do this by introducing stretching into your dog’s regular routine.

One way to teach your dog to stretch on cue is to watch for your dog to naturally stretch. They may do this after waking up from a good sleep.

When you see your dog stretch, acknowledge this with your chosen command and a clicker (if you’re using one). Don’t forget to follow this up with praise and treats!

In time, your dog will learn to stretch with the verbal cue, allowing you to take this habit and use it productively.

Step Five: Incorporate Balance Exercises

One element of conditioning that is often overlooked is balance. But, working on your dog’s balance can have a significant impact as they age.

To start, place an empty container in the middle of the floor and challenge your dog to stand with all 4 paws on it. This may seem easy, but it’s a good starting point for balance practice.

As your dog becomes comfortable with the storage bin, try introducing a challenge. Use an item that isn’t as sturdy. For example, ask your dog to balance on a couch cushion.

You can eventually work up to a canine exercise disc or wobble board. These are tools specifically designed to challenge your dog’s balance.

Step Six: Push the Envelope

At this point in your conditioning, you can challenge your dog to push their fitness level a little. What this involves will depend on your dog.

You may choose to take your dog running or enjoy a high-energy game of fetch. The goal is to get your dog’s heart rate up and get them moving.

Make sure to consider your dog’s health. A senior dog may not be able to run around the way a healthy adult dog can. Set reasonable expectations.

Step Seven: Always End with A Cool Down

When you finish working on your conditioning tasks, take time to cool down. This will help to slow the heart rate and relax the muscles.

If your dog has been running, this could mean slowing to a casual walk. You may also choose to circle back to some of the stretching exercises.

How to Start a Conditioning Program for Canine Sports

Step One: Research Your Post

Before starting the conditioning process, learn everything you can about the sport.

This includes how high impact it is, what requirements your dog must meet, and what struggles you may face. You also need to know if there are any health considerations. Different canine sports will pose different challenges.

The hard truth is that not every sport is a good fit for every dog (Just like people, not all dogs are athletic dogs). Be honest with yourself and make sure that you are setting realistic goals.

Step Two: Make Plans for the “Right” Kind of Exercise 

If you are conditioning your canine athlete with a specific sport in mind, then not all exercise is created equal. Instead, focus on the right exercise to target your dog’s needs. The ideal exercise for agility dogs may not be ideal for dogs training for cani-cross.

Are you preparing your dog to compete in agility? If your dog has great speed but struggles to jump the obstacles, focus on that.

Consider what exercises can help your dog start small and work up to being able to jump with confidence.

While this won’t be the only exercise your dog does, it will help to provide direction.

Step Three: Contact Your Veterinarian

Before committing to dog sports with your canine athlete, consult with your veterinarian. Discuss your plans in detail.

This will give your veterinarian the opportunity to consider your dog’s health. They will look at any medical concerns your dog may have and whether this could be harmful in any way.

Your veterinarian may also be able to provide some insight into what your focus should be.

For example, if a dog has weaker hips, you may need to put more effort into building the muscle mass in that area. Doing so will not only help them perform better but also prevent injury.

Step Four: Make Warm Ups and Cool Downs a Priority

Even the most advanced canine athletes need to warm up and cool down to protect their bodies. The same goes for your dog’s body.

Gentle warm-ups could include a short walk around the block or some gentle trick training. The goal is to warm up your dog’s muscles.

At the end of your conditioning workout, your dog will need to cool down. After a run, for example, walk it off. Ease out of your dog’s workout, don’t just stop.

Step Five: Don’t Forget the Basics

Often when working with a specific sports goal in mind, dog owners forget the basics. But, doing so can leave your dog at risk for injury over time.

Take some time to focus on the basic activities that every dog should be doing. This includes stretching and balance work.

These may not seem like important points for a well-trained athlete, but they can have a big impact.

No one wants to see a dog’s athletic career end with an injury! Especially a preventable one.

Canine Conditioning FAQs

How Do I Build My Dog’s Stamina?

Just as human athletes build up to the stamina needed to perform, so too must our dogs.

This means starting with an easier, lower intensity version of their sport of choice. Over time, you can add to this intensity by practicing harder or longer.

For example, if you are introducing your dog to dock diving, you may want to start with a short jump. After your dog has mastered the short job, add a little distance or height.

As you push the boundaries, keep your goals in mind. If you want to reach long distances, adding height may not be your best choice.

The goal is to continue working in small steps towards your big goal. Remember, these little steps forward can add up to big growth!

How Far Should a Dog Run Daily?

The distance that your dog can run daily will depend on their fitness level. A dog that has been training to run will be able to run further than a dog that hasn’t run a day in their lives.

Experts say the average dog, with a typical activity level, can run approximately 2 to 5 miles each day. This distance will vary based on the terrain.

But, a dog that has been training to run either as a hobby or for sport could reach distances of 25 to 35 miles.

If you’re unsure of your dog’s limits, pay attention to the signs they give you. They will show if they are being pushed too far, or if they have more to give.

How Can I Improve My Dog’s Activity?

If your goal is to improve your dog’s activity levels, focus on taking baby steps. This isn’t something that needs to be accomplished overnight!

In fact, doing so could put your dog at risk of injury.

Start by assessing where your dog’s activity level is currently at. If that’s “couch potato”, that’s okay. All dogs start somewhere.

Next, identify a goal. This could be your dog’s ability to run a short local race with you. Or, it could be completing a challenging hike together.

Break down the journey from where your dog is to where you hope to be into small, attainable steps. Day one could be as simple as taking a walk around the block.

Remember, every small step forward is a move in the right direction. In time, these small steps will add up!

Do I Need to Work with a Conditioning Specialist?

There are incredible professionals available that focus their careers on conditioning. You need to look at your goals to decide if you need the help.

If your dog is conditioning for a specific sport, a professional may help to take your dog to the next level. In this way, it’s like a coach for a human athlete.

But, your dog doesn’t have to be an athlete to work with a professional.

Senior dogs and dogs that are recovering from an injury may need the extra help. Working with a specialist can help to improve their quality of life.

Final Thoughts: Conditioning Your Dog and canine fitness

Conditioning your dog is an important step in giving your dog the quality of life they deserve. Whether you are preparing for a competition, helping a senior dog manage arthritis, or training your pup on an exercise wheel. These conditioning exercises help to improve your dog’s health and fitness level.

Don’t wait until you are faced with an injury to make conditioning part of your dog’s regular routine.

Photo of author
Britt Kascjak
Britt Kascjak has been active in the animal rescue community for over 15 years, volunteering, fostering, and advocating for organizations across Canada and the US. Her ‘pack’ includes her husband John, their 3 dogs – Daviana, Indiana, and Lucifer – and their 2 cats – Pippen and Jinx.