What are canine core strengthening exercises and what is their benefit?
When you research canine functional strengthening part of the new field of PT and Rehabilitation for dogs, you will find information about the fore and hind limbs. You will not find much at all on the “Core” groups which contain the diaphragm, abdominal, and spinal musculature.
We are starting to realize just how critical these muscle groups are to function and the importance of including them in a rehabilitation program.
The abdominal muscles run from the ribs to parts of the pelvis
Their names are rectus abdominis, external and internal obliques, and transverse abdominus.
Their functions are
- Movement: bending or flexion, side bend, and rotation of the spine
- Support for the spine and visceral organs
- Assist or act as an “accessory” to activity, breathing, barking.
The rectus is “superficial” and runs long ways in a head-to-tail direction (like the “6-pack” muscle in the human), the obliques are diagonal, along the dog’s side, and the transverse is a deep, lower muscle which runs from side to side.
When you visualize how the dog walks in a quadruped (all four limbs on the ground) manner with its internal organs positioned parallel to the ground, you can see how important the abdominal muscles are in supporting them and countering the effects of gravity as a “floor”.
Canines also have a much “shorter” gut/intestinal path as compared to humans, and the abdominals can also be helpful in aiding this system.
It is important to strengthen and firm the abdominals for prevention of spinal conditions in dogs, particularly the chondrodystrophic (dwarf) breeds like Dachshunds, Corgis, Pekingese and Lhasa Apso, or after a spinal injury or spinal surgery.
For dogs after abdominal surgery, the abdominal area needs rehabilitation to help tissue healing and regain strength.
Typical PT intervention after abdominal surgery includes massage over the surgery site.
Abdominal incisions are deep and tend to form excess scar tissue. This forms naturally as the body heals itself and it usually reabsorbs with normal movement and activity.
However, sometimes excess scarring can linger and impair muscle function. Various types of massage break down these “cross-links” of excess collagen.
The most common is transverse friction where a shearing type of movement is performed perpendicular to the scar direction (if scar runs “north-south the friction is applied “east-west”, etc.).
Myofascial release is a light subtle rhythmical surface technique which works on the fascia or connective tissues surrounding the musculature.
There are other “somatic” bodywork vibratory techniques used by massage therapists that can also help. In the “human PT” world a “Wurn Technique” exists that is being used over the abdominal region to release scar tissue in women having difficulty conceiving. I anticipate these techniques may eventually become adapted for use in animals having medical abdominal issues.
Now for the fun part! Here are some examples of canine core strengthening and toning exercises:
Get on the Ball
You can use a peanut-shaped ball or physio roll. Place the dog on top,” long ways” and perform gentle bouncing motions, while keeping one hand on your dog and one on the ball. This activates and “recruits” the abdominal musculature.
Sit up for a Treat
“Sit up for a Treat” can start with your dog lying on their back. Place a pillow or mattress underneath. Place one hand under their ribs or behind the neck, while the other hand holds a small treat, encourage them to do a “curl or sit-up” and reach the treat. This engages the rectus muscle, by working from the ‘top down”. 5 reps
Add a Twist
“Add a Twist”: roll them toward their side using a cushion or pillow under the ribs and do the same “sit-up” as above, but from the side, to activate the obliques. Repeat on the other side: 3-4 reps per side.
“Bottoms up” now work from the bottom up to recruit the deeper transverse abdominals. Start position with the dog on their back. Lean over the dog and tickle their lower belly, rub your head on the fur or something similar that is fun for your dog, so they will naturally want to curl up their legs and “bottom”. This is not done in reps but in time. Try and make this a fun little game, getting them to hold the position for 10-15 seconds. My dog likes when my hair falls down on her belly!
If your dog has difficulty lying on their back or side for the above exercises, you can start with a basic “belly tickle” in the standing on all fours position. Place one hand under their chin to align the head horizontally, and the other hand lightly tickling the belly to encourage abdominal muscular contraction.
Stretching: like all muscles, the abdominals can get tight and may need to be stretched. This should be done by a PT or your Vet, via rolling from side to side and lying back over a small rolled towel or foam roller.
General precautions and Contraindication:
I love to provide examples of PT exercises for you to do at home. However, the safest and best way is to have an animal-trained PT or a rehab-trained vet show you first.
They can provide specific modifications and parameters for the best outcome. I would avoid abdominal strengthening in certain high-cut/deep-chested breeds because of the potential risk of stimulating gastric torsion. It is always best to get your Vet’s advice first. Have a great summer and help firm your dog’s abs!!!
Canine Functional Strengthening Exercises
More than Canine Core Conditioning